Ocean News

Saving Sharks

By Lauren De Vos, 4th May 2022

The Save Our Seas Foundation joins forces with the Shark Conservation Fund

’My philosophy when it comes to tackling an issue that seems insurmountable is to break it down and approach it piece by piece. That’s ultimately how you get the job done.’ Lee Crockett is the executive director of the Shark Conservation Fund (SCF), a philanthropic collective that focuses on protecting our oceans by conserving sharks. It was started by five founding partners: the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Oceans 5 and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. ‘The argument that we are making about sharks is that they are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation as a result of their life histories: they live long and grow and reproduce slowly. They are easily overexploited.’

In fact, a recent study has shown that more than a third of sharks are now considered at risk of extinction – a scale of threat that is hard to truly digest. But it is the functioning of the oceans at large that is also at risk, and here the SCF ideology uses sharks as the starting point for a larger goal. ‘Because of their vulnerability, sharks also happen to be an ideal focal point for biodiversity conservation. If you can protect sharks, it’s likely that you can protect a great many other species,’ explains Lee.

‘Sharks are important to the functioning of ocean ecosystems and therefore we believe that if you focus on protecting sharks, you will conserve healthy oceans.’

A juvenile lemon shark in the safety of the red mangrove forests of Bimini, Bahamas. Photo by Shin Arunrugstichai | © Save Our Seas Foundation

It’s a philosophy shared by Dr James Lea, the chief executive officer of the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF): ‘Older than dinosaurs, sharks of some kind have been a constant in our oceans for millennia, yet in just a few decades we’ve cut their numbers by 70%. As predators, sharks are integral to the stability of many marine ecosystems, so helping these majestic fish to recover can in turn improve overall ocean health.’ James has joined the SCF advisory board and his research experience will provide a scientific contribution to the multidisciplinary team that dispenses grants for shark conservation. ‘James brings a scientific view to our decision-making, as well as the years of experience and networking in the conservation sector that come with the SOSF being an established NGO,’ says Lee.

We are finding increasing evidence for the view that sharks and rays are highly threatened, yet are critical to our survival because they help to maintain functioning ocean ecosystems. However, it is perhaps unusual to see organisations collaborate to achieve a common goal. A ‘silo’ approach to conservation issues has often hampered the success of large projects. But the scale of the challenges to shark and ray survival – from illegal trade, overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change – could be considered overwhelming. If Lee’s philosophy speaks to the issue at hand, it may mean that by cooperating and bringing together a multitude of skills across sectors, we can tackle the problem, piece by piece.

A reef manta ray glides over a cleaning station at D'Arros Island. Photo by Ryan Daly | © Save Our Seas Foundation

It is with the shared aim of preventing the extinction of shark species and maintaining healthy oceans that the SOSF has joined the SCF as one of its members. ‘We are a funders’ collaborative and we provide grants from the money that foundations and philanthropists give to us,’ explains Lee. ‘We identified three priority actions to guide our grant-making. First, we need to prevent extinctions.’ This means protecting endemic species threatened with extinction in priority countries (for instance, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia) and securing populations of the most threatened families. The SCF has prioritised sawfish, angelsharks and hammerhead sharks as some of the most threatened families to protect by supporting the design and implementation of conservation strategies. ‘Secondly,’ Lee continues, ‘we need to have species that are threatened by the trade in shark products listed and managed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).’ To achieve this, the SCF focuses on supporting work in a number of target areas, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brazil, Uruguay, Senegal and Gabon. Developing Non-Detrimental Findings (NDFs) that contain management measures, reviewing the implementation of listed species and advocating additional listings all fall within the SCF’s targeted support. ‘And thirdly, we need to combat unsustainable fishing,’ concludes Lee. ‘My job is to identify projects that are working towards these goals and recommend them to our board for funding.’

Why sharks?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body made up of global climate experts, released its third report in its sixth assessment this month. The gist of all three reports to date has been that the earth’s climate is changing, with serious consequences for our lives and livelihoods. The oceans are our greatest climate regulator; their currents and gyres, great moving masses of water, transport heat across the planet. The oceans are also a carbon sink, taking up the post-industrial emissions that have risen so alarmingly and caused global warming. However, most of our activities come at some cost to the oceans, and their overall health is impacted by the loss of their biodiversity (the assortment of species that play different roles in the marine environment so that it can function as it does) through overfishing, illegal trade, habitat loss and pollution. We need to ensure that the oceans’ ecosystems are resilient to change if we are going to maintain biodiversity and keep the oceans functioning and providing a buffer against the most serious effects of climate change.

For more than four hundred million years sharks have been evolving into many different species, with the consequence that their incredible diversity of forms provides different functions in the oceans. We know that we need healthy shark populations to play important ecological roles, from transporting nutrients to helping maintain the carbon storage capacity of the oceans. But overexploitation, through overfishing and the illegal trade in shark products, is the greatest threat to shark populations and we are witnessing crashing populations of one of the most important marine animal groups that contribute to functioning, resilient oceans.

The crystal clear waters of the Bahamas are well known for their healthy shark populations, which include tiger sharks. Photo © Christopher Vaughn-Jones

The most recent update of the status of shark and ray populations shows that the situation is even worse than we feared: more than a third of the species are threatened with extinction. Updated listings by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its Red List of Threatened Species show that of the 1,199 shark, ray and chimaera species assessed, 391 (32%) are listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable to extinction. The number of threatened shark species has doubled since the previous IUCN Red List assessment, placing sharks and rays second among all vertebrates (animals with a spine) for exctinction risk.

An understanding of the ecological importance of sharks, their dire conservation status and the nature of the threats they face are what focus the SCF’s investment strategy and align the SOSF to its mission. ‘Our investment strategy was approved in 2017 and we have just released our Five-Year Impact report reflecting on our effectiveness and successes,’ says Lee. ‘The investment strategy from 2018 to 2022 is framed around the three priority objectives of preventing extinction, ensuring sustainable trade and effective management through CITES, and ending overfishing. Our ultimate goal is to stop the shark and ray extinction crises and restore ocean health.’

Why work together?

‘We can help to provide some focus,’ suggests Lee. The SCF’s approach is guided by an evidence-based investment strategy and as the first five-year phase ends and the next five-year cycle approaches, reflection on what works is an important part of looking ahead. ‘We have people within the SCF who have strong experience in policy, but the SOSF brings a scientific element to our collective that balances out the dynamic so that we, in essence, fill the requirements of what was missing from our respective organisations individually and that will enable us to work better together.’

For 2022 and the years ahead, the SCF will support the inclusion of shark and ray protection in the expansion of marine protected areas to meet the 30 by 30 goal, which aims to protect 30% of the earth’s land and waters by 2030. The SCF’s goal is to include spatial planning and conservation to protect Important Shark and Ray Areas (ISRAs) in at least 100 marine protected areas established over the next 10 years. Further plans include increasing their efforts to strengthen legal protection, implementing and enforcing CITES listings and establishing legal protection for more species.

Overfishing remains the primary threat to white sharks, which are mainly caught as bycatch in a variety of fisheries globally, including longlines, trawls and gillnets. Ongoing catches have resulted in severe population declines for this species, with an estimated 90% drop reported for some areas (e.g. Australia). There is also targeted catch of white sharks from beach protection programmes in South Africa and Australia. Photo © Byron Dilkes

The SOSF and the SCF are proud sponsors of the ISRA process, which is spearheaded by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG). The synergy between the SOSF’s and the SCF’s vision for 2022 and beyond therefore bodes well for joining forces to tackle big challenges and pursue new opportunities.

‘I’m delighted that we are joining the Shark Conservation Fund. Combined with our own projects, it provides us with an even greater opportunity to make a real difference for sharks on a global scale.’

– James Lea, CEO

Preventing the exctinction of sharks is one step of many that are needed to ensure that the oceans are healthy, resilient and functioning. But it’s a major step, and one that will require many smaller steps before it is achieved. By combining skills and focusing on joint efforts, there is still a chance to turn the tide on one of the biggest species extinction crises of our time.

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