A few quick taps of the keyboard, and the term ‘shark conservation’ blinks back in the Google Scholar search bar. With the search filter toggled for results between 2003 and 2004, Julia Baum sounds the alarm for the ‘Collapse and conservation of shark populations in the Northwest Atlantic’. Sonja Fordham proposes the spiny dogfish as her case study to explore if the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) could complement shark conservation efforts. In 2003, we knew very well that a crisis was on hand: a rudimentary scan for scientific papers reflects concern for shark populations globally. The 1980s and 1990s had seen a broader societal shift in thinking about sharks. But filter the search to highlight papers released just from 2022, and titles transport you from southern Florida to southeast Asia, the Caribbean to Colombia and across the African continent’s coast. Acronyms abound: we’re using ROVs, AUVs, BRUVs. Concern for sharks remains high – probably at the highest it’s ever been, but is there any obvious shift? Yes, we see a broadening in the diversity of where shark science is being done, the species under investigation, the technologies we’re using, and who is doing the research.
Dr Chin, a SOSF scientific advisor, says there is truth in what sounds otherwise like a scientific cliché. ‘We’ve found that species we thought were one, are not – they’re subspecies or a complex, or totally new species.’ The first incarnation of the field guide Sharks of the World was published by Leonard Compagno with Sarah Fowler and Marc Dando in 2005 and detailed 440 species. The latest edition of this tome, now led by Dave Ebert and published in 2021, details 536 species. ‘And as we’ve found more, the challenges have multiplied. In some respects, we’ve come out of ignorance into more understanding, and now we’re truly coming to grips with the problems,’ continues Chin. In the space of two decades, more amorphous issues have crept onto our horizons to join overfishing and habitat loss as concerns. Caroline Wheeler, for instance, has been looking at how rising sea temperatures will affect epaulette shark reproduction. Whether the work of Sue-Ann Watson on giant clams, Andrew Chin on porcupine rays, the SOSF D’Arros Research Centre (SOSF-DRC) on coral reefs, or Eloise Cave on shark genetics, increasing numbers of project leaders have been deciphering what changing temperatures and ocean chemistry will mean for marine life. ‘But it doesn’t mean that all we have is problems,’ reminds Andrew.
‘For us divers, sharks are mortal enemies.’ It’s a surprising voiceover to hear intoned by Jacques Cousteau. One of the longest-standing issues for sharks has always been our perception of them. And we most often lay the blame for the PR plight of sharks squarely at the feet of Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley, the duo who released a rogue shark in 1975 onto movie screens, and into the imaginations of children in land-locked swimming pools everywhere. Ironically, CITES came into force mere days after Jaws was released. It would take a further 40 years before the white shark was listed on CITES Appendix II. But as Jacques Cousteau narrates a particularly bloody scene from his 1956 The Silent World, we realise that sharks have been demonised in popular culture long before that cello theme sawed its way into popular culture. In garish technicolour, the French oceanographer’s crew gaffs scores of oceanic whitetip and blue sharks from the sea and hauls their thrashing bodies onboard the famous Calypso, only to be bludgeoned to death. Today, the oceanic whitetip is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its Red List of Threatened Species. Both oceanic whitetip and blue sharks are listed on CITES Appendix II.
But we’re not in the same place as we were. In perhaps one of the best examples of a large-scale shift in how people think about sharing the sea with sharks, the SOSF began co-funding a pioneering South African shark safety programme and its white shark research in 2009. The Sharks Spotters programme fundamentally shifted the approach to beach-goer safety, finding solutions that incorporated people (and managing their behaviour and information sources) rather than focusing solely on sharks as the issue. The effort to centre people in the solutions to shark PR problems brought political and social sciences to the fore generally. Christopher Neff was supported by SOSF in 2013 to collect data on public perceptions of sharks. It seemed that real progress was being made to shift peoples’ misconceptions. But at the same time, 2011 saw five shark hunts and the deliberation of shark net deployment across parts of Réunion Island and Australia. Says Neff in an interview with SOSF in 2019:
So, while we may have moved away from glorifying Cousteau’s 1950s gore, and much work has been done to mitigate the Jaws image, our perceptions of sharks remain complex and nuanced. In their 2019 scientific paper, John Carlson and co-authors ask: ‘Are we ready for shark conservation success?’ They identify three potential avenues where shark-human conflict may once again arise: increased shark bite incidents, shark depredation in fisheries, and management conflicts involving threatened species pose potential avenues of misunderstanding and dispute. How we manage these conflicts depends on the resources we invest now, and how we value thinking ahead to shark conservation success.
‘Our understanding of the status of marine biodiversity remains incredibly limited.’ Nick Dulvy, professor at Simon Fraser University, was a keynote speaker at Sharks International in 2022. His speech was sobering, but unsurprising given the recent publication of the updated IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The review evaluated 1199 species of chondrichthyans (sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras) and the results showed that more than one-third (37.5%) of these species are threatened with extinction. The Red Sea torpedo ray, Java stingaree and Lost shark were highlighted as possibly extinct (each seen last in 1898, 1868 and 1934, respectively). Nick continues: ‘We know where the threat is: half of all coastal species are threatened, and that threat is highest in the tropics and subtropics.’ And we also know what the threats are. ‘Of all the threatened species listed on the IUCN Red List, every single one is threatened by overfishing.’
When we chat after Sharks International, Nick continues:
In their paper published in Current Biology in 2017, Colin Simpfendorfer and Nick Dulvy review ‘Bright spots of sustainable shark fishing’. Yes, many shark populations are overfished (in another ironic twist of time, global catches peaked 20 years ago in 2003). But where well-developed fisheries management systems exist, populations meet all or some of the ‘sustainability’ criteria; notably, in Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada. The question remains: if tens of millions of sharks are being caught each year, and we’re still deep in crisis, why not forgo sustainable fishing and implement outright bans? Simpfendorfer and Dulvy give a measured answer in this paper (and elsewhere): these may be solutions in some cases, but where sharks are caught and retained as bycatch or are important as food security, we’ll need to learn from these ‘bright spots’ to move to sustainable fisheries.
We also know that the drive to improve our knowledge has never been higher. There is hope where once it was lost. ‘Species like the clown wedgefish in Indonesia and speartooth sharks in Papua New Guinea that we thought had been lost, have been rediscovered,’ says Andrew Chin. Unlikely places are emerging as something of a ‘lifeboat’ for sharks and rays: the Gulf of Papua, for instance, harbours all four endangered Indo-Pacific sawfish species (narrow, dwarf, green and largetooth) and two river shark species (northern and speartooth). Project leaders Michael Grant and William White have been working in the region, and over the course of four years, White has gone on to record a total of 138 chondrichthyans in both historic and contemporary records, with 12 new species described.
Finally, we also know that policy makers can listen when they’re given accessible information. In 2003, the first sharks (whale sharks and basking sharks) were listed on CITES Appendix II. In 2022, CITES parties voted to bring 90% of the shark-fin trade under surveillance and regulation. Among their five recommended lessons learnt that can help move us towards sustainable shark fisheries, Simpfendorfer and Dulvy point out that international treaties like CITES can help drive improved shark management.
In moments of intense overwhelm, a quick glance out of the salt-stained windows of the SOSF Shark Education Centre in Kalk Bay, South Africa gives pause. Scuttling over the rocky shores of the no-take Dalebrook marine protected area (MPA), school children peer into shallow pools and huddle around exciting discoveries. They’re not yet marvelling at the agility of a blue shark that is found further offshore, or puzzling through the kelp forest looking for sevengill sharks. Most of them will never see one of these charismatic sharks alive in its habitat. No, they are utterly absorbed in the micro-dramas playing out in the intertidal zone: they are rooting for the tiny camouflaged fish that duck into crevices, and hearing tales of farming limpets that tend their algal food gardens. They shriek when red bait ascidians (sea squirts) shoot sea water from their siphons, and they might well cheer if a more unusual visitor: an octopus, perhaps, or a tiny endemic shyshark is swept from the sanctity of the kelp into the ebb and flow of the tidal pools where they can finally be more closely observed. Their curiosity, their sense of connection: it’s the lifeline upon which we depend, and the precious gift we must protect.
And their total immersion in the world that is the rocky shores; its interconnectedness with the ocean that rolls away to the horizon and visits their feet in foaming white wavelets, sparks a thought. Sharks have so long occupied a particular place in our collective consciousness: they seem, for so long, to have been a group apart. In many respects, this distinction is justified. Long-lived, slow-growing denizens that have ruled the oceans for more than 450 million years, with their skeletons made of cartilage, they are defined by the air of fascination that has seen them both maligned and the focus of an intense conservation crisis. But there may be something to be said for sharks to be settled in their ecosystem context: in our understanding of the roles they play, in the management of their populations, and in their protection. Exactly 30 years ago, 168 nations signed the Convention on Biological Diversity into being. The ratification of this treaty, which recognised the importance of conserving the fabric of all life for the benefit of future generations, spawned a host of other ambitious goals. And so, we find ourselves in 2023 scrambling towards the deadlines to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, to meet the Aichi Targets, to uphold the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14. In the midst of this lies a siloed approach that many scientists, foremost among them SOSF scientific advisor Sarah Fowler, are trying to connect: our management of sharks as resources, and our management of them as part of the ecosystem.
The IUCN Shark Specialist Group’s (SSG) Important Shark and Ray Areas (ISRAs) process supports the identification of essential habitats for sharks. Whilst some countries have pledged 30% ocean protection in marine protected area (MPA) networks, many have at a minimum agreed to meet the Aichi Targets of 10%. The question is: which percentage gets protection? Until now, the jury has been out on the value of MPA protection for sharks; however, the ISRAs process hopes to amalgamate information that can inform the management and protection of critical habitats that sharks use. Their nurseries and feeding grounds are the last strongholds for highly endangered species and the only lifeboats for endemic species found nowhere else in the world. Equipped with the best information on which areas are most crucial for sharks’ survival, the ISRAs give us a global-scale strategy for sharks – and ensure that they are no longer left off the spatial planning map. The ISRAs will ultimately overlap in time and space with other parallel processes: the Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), Turtle Areas (IMTAs) and Bird Areas (IBAs). In this way, sharks are both the focus of their own intense research prioritisation process, and integrated as part of a more holistic whole by finally making it onto the same maps as other marine life.
We will, hopefully, be able to see sharks at different scales: defined as the focus for policy prioritisation and integrated into our planning for the ocean’s entire tapestry of life. And what a win that would be as we move into a future with sharks: each of us able to tap into what comes so naturally to those children on the rocky shores. A sense of connection. At ease with interconnectedness. One wonders what the response from a child on the seashore would be about sharks and the sea today, versus 20 years ago. And perhaps this would be something to ponder when making sense of our place on this planet: could we celebrate sharks as part of the sea, and a greater community?