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Pacific Island Nations Take Lead in Shark Conservation

Shark conservation steams ahead in the Pacific…but is the rest of the world far behind? By Matt Rand On March 8 Governor Eddie Baza Calvo (R-Guam), signed into law a bill banning the sale, possession and distribution of shark fins. A major fishing hub, this U.S. territory now joins a growing chorus of Pacific Ocean...

Shark conservation steams ahead in the Pacific…but is the rest of the world far behind?

By Matt Rand

On March 8 Governor Eddie Baza Calvo (R-Guam), signed into law a bill banning the sale, possession and distribution of shark fins. A major fishing hub, this U.S. territory now joins a growing chorus of Pacific Ocean voices in support of shark conservation.

The need for these voices is critical. These key predators are vital to the health of marine ecosystems. Tiger sharks, for example, have been linked to maintaining the quality of seagrass beds. Dugongs and green sea turtles, common prey for tiger sharks, often forage in seagrass. With no predator to control this grazing, an important habitat could be over-consumed and possibly lost, endangering all of the species that live in and depend on it.

Many shark populations around the globe are in deep trouble. Worldwide, up to 73 million are killed every year primarily for their fins, which are valued for their use in shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Huge numbers are also killed inadvertently by fishermen who are not targeting them but are able to sell the fins nonetheless.

Certain types of fishing gear exacerbate this problem. Surface longlines, for example, consist of monofilament lines that extend up to 40 miles and are baited with thousands of hooks. Longlines are primarily used to catch swordfish, tuna and other valuable fish. Unfortunately many other non-target species, including sharks, are caught with this gear and often thrown back in the water dead or dying.

Sharks grow slowly, maturing late and producing few young over their lifetimes. They are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from depletion. As a result, 30 percent of the world’s species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. For an additional 47 percent, scientists lack enough data to even properly assess the health of their populations.

Despite the jaw-dropping numbers harvested each year, few countries involved in the shark trade manage their fisheries. In January, an analysis produced by the Pew Environment Group and TRAFFIC found that only 13 of the top 20 shark-catching countries have developed national plans of action to protect these animals–one of the primary recommendations from a 2001 United Nations agreement on sharks. It remains unclear how those plans have been implemented or if they have been effective.

Indeed, the top 20 shark-catching countries account for more than 640,000 tons annually, nearly 80 percent of the total catch reported globally. Indonesia, India, Spain and Taiwan alone account for more than 35 percent of all sharks taken annually, based on their reported data.

There is hope, however, and the international community should look to the example of bold policies being implemented by leaders around the Pacific. Increasingly the world is hearing from small island nations and territories about the need for meaningful conservation action. More and more, we see these islands taking strong stands against unsustainable fishing practices that are depleting global shark populations:


In this Pew Environment video, Matt Rand discusses sharks getting new protections under U.S. law.


This effort is spreading beyond the Pacific Islands. In 2010, Honduras enacted a moratorium on commercial shark fishing and also joined Palau at the United Nations General Assembly in challenging other countries to follow suit. This year, at the same time as the Marshall Islands announcement, Costa Rica increased restrictions on commercial fishing for an expanded marine park surrounding Cocos Island, the home to large numbers of hammerhead sharks.

In The Bahamas, a 20 year-old ban on longline fishing gear has left its waters as one of the few places in the world with relatively healthy shark populations. This has paid off for the small island nation. According to The Bahamas Diving Association, diving tourism has contributed up to $800 million to the Bahamian economy since the longline ban. There are, however, no laws there that specifically protect sharks. Pew is currently working with The Bahamas National Trust to gain permanent protections in all of The Bahamas’ Exclusive Economic Zone, an area encompassing approximately 630,000 square kilometers of ocean.

The Bahamas provides a unique opportunity to conserve healthy populations for these animals before it is too late. Indeed, the large numbers of these fish in its waters have already drawn the attention of a local seafood exporter as a potential source of fins. Protecting sharks in The Bahamas would bolster the country’s economy and environment and continue the conservation trend that the Pacific Islands launched.

As shark populations continue to plummet, the need for action in all corners of the world remains imperative. The healthy ocean surrounding The Bahamas right now is the exception; it is our hope that in time it will become the rule.

Matt Rand directs global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group. The views expressed here are those of Matt Rand and/or the Pew Environment Group and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn