New protection measures for sharks

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Oceana, the world's largest international ocean conservation organisation have released a report that estimates that at least 1.3 million migratory sharks, were caught in the Atlantic Ocean in 2008 without international fisheries management.

The report was presented at the 17th Special Meeting of ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) to demonstrate the importance of protecting highly migratory species and to urge the Commission to protect sharks as well as tuna.

At present the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) lists 72 shark species as "highly migratory" and therefore designated as requiring management by international bodies. 21 of these species were reported to be caught in ICCAT waters in 2008, representing a catch of more than 65,000 tonnes. Of these 21 species, the IUCN lists three quarters as threatened with extinction in parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet sharks remain all but unmanaged by ICCAT, with the exception of a weak finning ban and a prohibition on retaining bigeye thresher sharks.

It is also thought that the actual figure of sharks caught may be far higher due to the fact that a large proportion of the countries reported no shark catches at all. Scientific estimates based on Hong Kong shark fin trade data suggest that real shark catches in the Atlantic may be more than three times higher than what is reported to ICCAT.

"Sharks are virtually unmanaged at the international level," said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at Oceana. "ICCAT has a responsibility to protect sharks. It is time to protect our ocean’s top predators."

Many highly migratory shark populations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea are significantly overexploited. For example, the North Atlantic population of oceanic whitetips has declined by an estimated 70% and hammerheads have declined by more than 99% in the Mediterranean.

Oceana called on ICCAT to prohibit the capture of endangered and vulnerable species, including hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, common thresher and porbeagle sharks; establish science-based, precautionary catch limits for other commonly caught species in ICCAT fisheries, especially for at-risk shortfin mako sharks; and improve the ICCAT shark finning ban by requiring sharks to be landed whole, with their fins still naturally attached.

At close of play, the 48 member nations of ICCAT had agreed protection for eight species of shark including a total prohibition on keeping or selling any oceanic whitetip sharks caught in the Atlantic Ocean and a prohibition on keeping or selling hammerhead sharks caught in ICCAT fisheries.

They also agreed that countries that do not submit data of catches of shortfin mako sharks by 2013 will be prohibited from catching mako sharks at all.