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Oops, wrong catch

273 million sharks die a year due to wrong fishing tools

Koror — Longline fishing vessels aim for tuna but they deploy miles of baited hooks that accidentally clinch sharks, among other unintended targets.

A 2013 study by the Social Development Direct estimated that around 100 million sharks died in 2000 as a result of fishing, and 97 million in 2010. Making estimates for such huge areas of ocean is difficult so the study found shark deaths ranged between a possible low of 63 million and a top estimate of 273 million sharks killed per year by fishing.

Another study by the same group in 2015 found that pelagic longlines and deep-sea and coastal trawl fisheries had the largest total annual shark and ray bycatch. Blue sharks dominated the bycatch in longline fisheries. For other types of fishing gear, the species of bycatch varied across oceanic regions. Many of the fisheries with the largest bycatch of cartilaginous species like sharks and rays operate over vast areas of ocean and often in international waters, where fishing rules are weaker.

The Philippines hosted the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) from Dec, 3 to 7. The organization’s main job is to conserve and manage nearly 60 percent of the global tuna catch, equivalent to 2.9 million tons of tuna, valued at over $5 billion. It is also responsible for managing and conserving other migratory fish such as sharks and manta rays.

The environmental group, PEW Charitable Trusts, said it is not just sharks and rays that fall into the mandate of WCPFC but all the species killed by accident as bycatch. PEW says this aspect of fisheries management has been criminally overlooked by the commission.

Amanda Nickson, PEW’s director for Global Tuna Conservation, said shark management is an “issue brought by Pacific countries (to the Commission).” Other international conventions are also involved.

Prior to the meeting Nickson expressed hope for agreement on a comprehensive shark management measure, but that did not occur. WCPFC did promise to make it a top priority for next year. “So it will be really good to see a comprehensive measure that covers all the shark species,” Nickson told reporters.

PEW is keen to see action for sharks before their numbers crash. Negotiations for new rules on sharks have to take into account the widely differing interests of fishing nations and more conservation-minded resource-owning nations.

At this year’s WCPFC meeting, the 26-member countries agreed to “devote significant intersessional resources to resolve longstanding and contentious issues surrounding the conservation and management of sharks.” This means work should begin on the new shark measure before the middle of next year.

For the first time there will be an Intersessional Working Group on sharks aiming to unify the existing five management measures and build on them to develop a comprehensive management framework.

Kerrilynn Miller, PEW Charitable Trusts Global Shark Conservation Officer, said several shark species are declining because they are either being targeted for fishing and also killed by accident by tuna fishing boats.

Miller said catching sharks should be curbed and the WCPFC should adopt a measure that would prohibit the retention of sharks caught accidentally.

PEW said there are ways to avoid catching of sharks, such as banning wire leaders on fish hooks which, unlike nylon are too touch for sharks to bite through and escape. Pole and line has been advocated as a more sustainable fishing method to avoid catching of sharks.

According to Greenpeace, pole and line fishing is much more selective and bycatch is less. If pole and line vessels do catch creatures other than tuna, it is easier for them to be returned to the water unharmed.

Sharks are important to the ecosystem and as the top predators they keep the balance in the oceans. For small Pacific island nations, sharks can generate more money alive than dead. Shark-based tourism in most of these nations is a lucrative business.

In Palau, an Indo-Pacific Tuna Program funded by The Nature Conservancy is testing whether the use of a more sustainable kind of hooks could reduce the amount of bycatch. The program seeks to determine whether a circular hook is a more sustainable design for reducing bycatch.

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