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Sharks in the Spotlight

Sharks in the Spotlight

Experts Gather to Assess Status of North & Central American Sharks and Rays

Gland, Switzerland, and Sarasota, US, 15 June 2004 (IUCN) - Experts are gathering this week at Mote Marine Laboratory, Florida, US, to examine how sharks and rays of North and Central American waters are faring against mounting threats such as overfishing. IUCN - The World Conservation Union is convening the group to assess regional populations of these vulnerable species and recommend action to ensure their survival.

"Sharks do not have the capacity to withstand intense fishing pressure, yet exploitation of their populations, in this region and around the world, is increasing at a frightening rate," says Dr. Rachel Cavanagh, Programme Officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. "We are hopeful that this landmark workshop will address the urgent need to evaluate the population status of sharks while inspiring international initiatives to conserve them."

Sharks (and closely related skates and rays) are particularly susceptible to overexploitation because they grow slowly, mature late and produce few young. Global catches are on the rise. Demand for the Asian delicacy "shark fin soup" creates incentive to kill sharks solely for their fins. In addition, the degradation of coastal habitat poses a threat to many coastal shark and ray species. Yet sharks, skates, and rays remain low priority for research and management attention.

"Shark conservation is hindered by a lack of information and support, and time is running out," said Sonja Fordham, shark conservation specialist for The Ocean Conservancy. "Critical habitats are being degraded and fisheries are expanding before basic biological information is developed. Few countries impose any restriction on shark fishing. Even in the US, a leader in international shark conservation, many populations remain un-assessed and under-protected."

Scientists from government agencies, universities and private institutions are participating in the workshop which runs from 15-18 June. These include the authors of papers on shark and skate declines published in the journals Science and Nature and the experts who developed population assessments for existing shark and skate management plans, as well as prominent researchers from Central America. In total, more than 50 experts from the US., Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Ecuador are attending, providing a unique opportunity for bilateral and international collaboration.

"Most sharks travel across national boundaries, which complicates their conservation," added Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research and host of the workshop. "Management measures for these highly migratory species need to be consistent throughout the species' range and may involve multiple jurisdictions. To achieve effective conservation, we must develop our international partnerships as well as our knowledge base."

North and Central American waters support a great diversity of sharks and rays, many of which are already depleted. Several species of skates taken incidentally in New England and Canadian trawl fisheries are at critically low levels while, further south, directed fishing for Atlantic sharks has led to population declines of 80% or more. Sawfish, a type of ray once common in the Southeast US and Central America, are in danger of extinction. While the US and Canada restrict the take of many depleted or otherwise vulnerable Atlantic sharks and skates, most North and Central American populations, particularly those in the Pacific, have yet to be assessed. In most cases, fishing continues unabated.

The workshop is the fifth in a global series to assess all the world's shark and ray species. Previous regional workshops have focused on Subequatorial Africa, South America, Australasia and the Mediterranean Sea. Species assessments produced at the Florida workshop will be included in the 2005 update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the world's most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity. Red listings can rapidly influence management, for instance, Australia promptly tightened restrictions on two shark species highlighted at the Australasia workshop. The Mote group will also develop regional priorities for shark research and management.

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