WWF Calls for Urgent Measures to be Adopted to Prevent Extinction of Oceanic Whitetips
The WWF is calling on members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to take urgent action to prevent the potential extinction of the region's oceanic whitetip sharks, and improve the plight of other sharks and rays harvested in the Pacific. The call to action comes as member states attend the 16th meeting of the WCPFC which takes place this week between 5-11 December in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Oceanic whitetips were, until recently, the most common species of pelagic shark. Described in 1969 as 'perhaps the most abundant large animal, large being over 100 pounds [45 kg], on the face of the earth', worldwide population decline has been catastrophic. The latest scientific study commissioned by the WCPFC – a regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) governing tuna fisheries – found that the Western and Central Pacific has declined by as much as 95 per cent.
Such a decline would qualify the species as 'Critically Endangered' on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, with the report concluding that the oceanic whitetip would become extinct in the region if the current unsustainable level of fishing were to continue. The oceanic whitetip is highly prized by the shark fin trade and is often caught as accidental bycatch by pelagic fisheries.
'It is unbelievable that a species that could be counted in the millions in the past is now facing extinction in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, an area covering almost 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface,' said John Tanzer, Leader, Oceans at WWF International. 'Urgent action is required to start rebuilding the oceanic whitetip population and to ensure that no other open ocean shark or ray ends up in such a disastrous position in the first place.'
An official 'catch and retention' ban, which prohibits fisheries from keeping sharks that are accidentally caught as bycatch, has been in place since 2011. However, the fact that sharks and rays continue to make up a large percentage of annual bycatch in Western and Central Pacific, according to a 4 December WWF press release, 'points to the WCPFC’s inability to manage fishing impacts on this species.'
The WWF describes the problems facing the oceanic whitetip shark in Western and Central Pacific as 'emblematic of broader issues affecting all pelagic sharks in waters governed by [the WCPFC] and other tuna RFMOs'. At the end of November 2019, another major tuna RFMO, ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), rejected scientific advice to recover the dangerously depleted population of Atlantic shortfin mako shark through a 'zero-retention policy', although it did agree to conservation measures designed to protect the most commonly caught blue shark.
'With important decisions made by WCPFC only once a year and their consent-based decision-making process, it is of utmost importance that all member states take action at the upcoming meeting and agree to adopt the recommended, science-based measures. Only this way WCPFC will be able to conserve sharks – including the oceanic whitetip – and move fisheries towards a sustainable future,' said Dr Andy Cornish, Leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, WWF’s global shark and ray conservation programme.
With the exception of the quotas for Atlantic blue sharks recently introduced by ICCAT, there are no catch limits for any other pelagic species of shark. Overfishing is recognised as the major threat to the 1,200 species of shark currently known to science - of which 25 per cent were listed in 2014 as being threatened with extinction. Updated IUCN Red List assessments due to be released in the coming months may reveal that the situation today could be significantly worse.
Sharks: Restoring the Balance conservation programme works on issues such as consumption, management, and trade, with projects in 20 countries and territories across six continents. Founded in 2014, the programme is guided by a global 10-year conservation strategy for sharks and rays developed in partnership with other leading conservation NGOs and guided by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.