Sharks and seabirds on agenda for international fishery meeting

Declining shark populations are on the agenda at an FAO Consultation to be held in Rome from 26 to 30 October. Delegates from 80 countries, including the world's biggest fishing nations, will attend. Measures to reduce accidental catches of seabirds by longline fisheries and the management of fishing capacity will also be discussed.

Philippines: a boy shows off a young shark brought in by the village fishing fleet (FAO photo 18246)

FAO has expressed concern about the population levels of many of the world's shark and ray species, warning that "unless efforts are undertaken promptly to halt growing catches, the future of many more shark populations is very bleak." The meeting is expected to approve a voluntary International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks.

Worldwide, commercial exploitation of sharks has risen sharply over the last 20 years. In 1950, about 272 000 tonnes were landed. In 1996, the amount was up to 760 000 tonnes. Most of this is in accidental bycatch.

Sharks are food for the rich and the poor. Their meat is a cheap source of protein for millions of subsistence fisherfolk. Shark fins - the key ingredient for the oriental delicacy shark fin soup - are one of the most expensive fish products in the world. Often the fins are cut off and the carcasses thrown back in the water. Shark skin, teeth, cartilage and liver oil are also used and traded.

Many shark species grow slowly, mature late, and are not highly fertile. This means that they are extremely vulnerable to overexploitation as it takes many years for numbers to build up again.

Of the 100 exploited shark species, it is now feared that about 20 are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Among those highest on the danger list are: Silky Shark, Basking Shark, Porbeagle, Narrownose Smooth-hound, Picked Dogfish, Dusky Shark, Tope Shark and Shortfin Mako Shark (go to Fisheries Department for Shark Catalogue and Species)

At the top of the danger list for seabirds caught as accidental bycatch in longline fisheries is the albatross of the Southern Ocean. "For some species the level of incidental mortality is considered not to be sustainable, and their populations are in decline," according to FAO. Some 61 species of seabirds have been recorded as killed by longline operations on at least one occasion. The birds try to seize the bait and get pulled under water by the weight of the lines and drowned.

The meeting is expected to approve a voluntary International Plan of Action for Reducing Incidental Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries that puts forward several measures to cut bird mortality: setting lines under water so that birds cannot reach the hooks, using bird-scaring lines, and setting lines under cover of darkness which has already proven highly effective. It is assumed that such measures could reduce bycatch of seabirds significantly, probably as much as 90 percent, at a relatively low cost to the industry.

The meeting is also set to develop and propose guidelines for a voluntary International Instrument for the Management of Fishing Capacity. Excess fishing capacity is a major problem for fisheries around the world - contributing to the decreasing size of many important fish stocks and to the consequent decline in landings. It is also a major source of economic waste.

22 October 1998

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