Does banning all shark fishing do more harm than good?

There are two primary ways to conserve sharks. One, often called “limit-based,” involves blanket bans on shark fishing, such as the designation of no-take marine reserves, and is becoming increasingly popular thanks to a long history of unsustainable shark fisheries. The other, more commonly implemented policy (“target-based”) is designed to allow for sustainable exploitation of sharks, such as through predetermined quotas.

To drill down into current opinions about these two conservation strategies, shark researchers David Shiffman and Neil Hammerschlag from the University of Miami polled members of the American Elasmobranch Society, the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society, and the European Elasmobranch Association. The study did not ask which approach is more effective, only which approach is more favored by those who study the animals meant for protection. While the answers to those two questions may—and probably do—overlap, they are by no means the same.

More than 80% of those who completed the survey said they believed that sustainable fisheries for sharks were at least possible, and 90% said that target-based policies, rather than blanket limits, ought to be the focus on shark conservation. (Many did support bans on harvesting species of high conservation concern, though.) As examples of currently sustainable fisheries, respondents noted the blacktip, dogfish, thresher, and blue shark fisheries in the U.S., as well as the gummy and blacktip fisheries in Australia.

The establishment of marine sanctuaries as a tool for shark conservation was not well supported. While that may seem like a surprise, the respondents’ explanations provide a clear explanation: marine sanctuaries discount important stakeholders such as commercial fishers and local communities who may have come to rely on the ocean for their survival. One respondent said that sanctuaries were “a pointless way of making NGOs very unpopular with the commercial fishing industry,” while another said that sanctuaries could be useful to rebuild populations until they were strong enough to withstand sustainable offtake. In other words, a limit-based approach would be a useful strategy to preserve populations until a target-based strategy became viable.

Most of those who completed the survey believed that it was their professional and personal responsibility to help apply their scientific expertise to conservation-related problems, either though individual advocacy or through work with nonprofit organizations. More than half had submitted a formal comment to a governmental body or had included specific policy recommendations in their scientific papers, and more than three quarters had signed petitions in support of or against particular policies. Perhaps these trends are explained by the belief among three quarters of the respondents that shark conservation NGOs don’t often focus on the most important issues. “Overzealous movements to stop all shark fishing do more harm than good,” one wrote.

“This paper shows that in the ongoing debate between whether sustainable fisheries or banning fishing is the best option for ocean conservation, the scientists who have spent the most time studying this issue fall overwhelmingly on one side,” says Shiffman. “These expert opinions should be considered when selecting the conservation policy that will be the best fit for a given situation.” – Jason G. Goldman | 17 February 2016

Source: Shiffman, D., & Hammerschlag, N. (2015). Preferred conservation polices of shark researchers. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12668.

Header image: Thresher shark via shutterstock.com

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