By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Migratory animals play an important role in ecosystems worldwide, but many are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation and human activities like commercial hunting and fishing. While migratory animals may be protected in some areas of the world, those protections may be lax or nonexistent in areas where they migrate to or through.
“Poor coordination and a lack of cooperation between countries can mean that the conservation of migratory species is neglected and the contribution that the animals can make to economies and communities is undervalued,” wrote Matt Collis, director of international policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).1 In a major milestone for six species of sharks of rays, however, extra protections have been granted on an international level.
The protections are courtesy of a conservation agreement between 126 countries, with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) of Wild Animals, also known as the Bonn Convention, granting the added protections to whale sharks, angelsharks, dusky sharks, blue sharks, common guitarfish and the white-spotted wedgefish.2
In all of the participating countries, it will thus become prohibited to catch such species and their habitat will be conserved and, if possible, restored. Obstacles to their migration will also be removed or mitigated and other factors that could put them in danger will be controlled, according to CMS,3 whose mission is to conserve migratory species on land and in the air and sea, throughout their range.
Blue Shark, Whale Shark to Benefit Under New Agreement
The agreement stands to greatly benefit both whale sharks and blue sharks, the latter of which is the world’s most heavily fished shark, according to Collis. Blue sharks migrate long distances through international waters, putting them at great risk of overfishing. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), about 20 million blue sharks are caught annually, often as bycatch, making them a near threatened species.4 Collis added:
“Until now, no protection existed throughout its entire range, and there is no management of blue shark fisheries or regulation of international trade despite approximately 20 million blue sharks being caught every year in fisheries around the globe. Given the failure of fisheries bodies around the world to address this problem, this Appendix II CMS listing increases the pressure for action by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to regulate catches.”5
Whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, will also benefit significantly. As an endangered species, whale sharks are threatened by fishing, both intentional and as bycatch in nets, and boat strikes. “Whale Sharks have previously been targeted in large-scale fisheries from India, the Philippines and Taiwan, with hundreds of sharks caught annually in each country until species-level protections were implemented,” IUCN noted.6 According to Collis, the CMS listing will extend protections for whale sharks even farther:
“Whale sharks have become incredibly important for dive tourism in many countries and coastal communities around the world, but their numbers are declining. While many countries already protect whale sharks, not all of the world’s whale shark hotspots are protected. So this CMS listing should lead to enhanced protection in places like Madagascar, Mozambique, Peru and Tanzania.”7
Common Guitarfish and Dusky Sharks Get Extra Protections, Too
The common guitarfish, which looks like a combination between a shark and a ray, is another endangered species that will receive increased protections under the new agreement. Often falling victim to shrimp trawl fleets and gill net fisheries, common guitarfish are also targeted for their meat and fins.
“Due to widespread and unregulated fishing throughout the range the population is expected to be declining,” IUCN reported,8 however no species-specific conservation measures had been put into place, until now.
Dusky sharks, which can live up to 50 years, are classified as a vulnerable species according to IUCN’s Red List, with their population decreasing. They’re one of the slowest-growing and latest to mature of all shark species, and their fins and meat are highly valued, making them a target of overfishing. They’re also often taken as bycatch.
“Because of its high-value fin, dusky sharks caught incidentally in tuna and swordfish fisheries are now regularly landed rather than released,” IUCN noted,9 but the new agreement will increase their protections, at least in the 126 participating countries.
In case you were wondering, the agreement extends to animals on land too. Lions, leopards, chimpanzees and giraffes will also receive additional protections in an effort to protect some of the world’s most iconic species. As CMS put it, “Migratory animals are potentially very effective indicators of environmental changes that affect us all,”10 so it’s encouraging that countries are taking steps to work together to coordinate protection across borders.