The Ocean Wildlife Campaign hosted the International Pelagic Shark Workshop in California from February 14-17, 2000. 125 shark experts from 12 countries participated in the first of its kind workshop that examined the biology, population status, and current management of pelagic (open ocean) shark species around the world.
Pelagic sharks are targeted by commercial and recreational fisheries worldwide and are killed in large numbers in fisheries targeting other species, such as tunas and swordfish. This workshop confirmed that limited abundance data are available for most important oceanic species and the status of virtually all populations remains unknown.
However, "a tremendous amount of biological information presented from all corners of the world on a wide variety of species of pelagic sharks all clearly pointed to the fact that these animals are highly vulnerable to overfishing," remarked Ellen Pikitch, Ph. D., of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and co-organizer of the workshop. The workshop revealed a number of new methods to better determine the health of shark stocks, which may allow scientists to strengthen pelagic shark stock assessments in the future.
The only species for which a complete assessment was available, the porbeagle shark in the northwest Atlantic, showed significant declines. The assessment estimates the populations at only 20% of its initial abundance. "We continue to ignore lessons from the past," said Ocean Wildlife Campaign (OWC) director, David Wilmot, Ph.D., "The porbeagle population, which is still recovering from severe overfishing in the 1960s, is declining again because of overfishing in the 1990s.
According to Merry Camhi, Ph. D., of the National Audubon Society, and co-organizer of the workshop, although 125 countries fish or trade in shark products, only a handful have implemented management plans for their shark fisheries. "Shark fishing is a free-for-all, as there are currently no management regulations in place for shark fisheries in international waters," continued Camhi.
Conservationists attending the conference reached consensus that the current lack of information must not be used to justify continued inaction in the management of pelagic sharks. For example, the rapid increase of finning in the Hawaii based longline fishery continues to put pelagic sharks at risk. In addition, the workshop participants urged countries to implement conservation objectives of the recently adopted U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization^s International Plan of Action for sharks.
"This was the first important step on the road to understanding the status of these sharks in the world^s oceans," said Robert Hueter, Ph. D., director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory and a participant in the workshop. "We live in an era of overexploited marine resources and the need to rebuild many, if not most, stocks of marine fish. The burden of proof that our fishing activities are not harming the resource must shift from fishery managers and scientists to fishermen.."
The Ocean Wildlife Campaign is calling on the United States to continue leading international efforts to establish management for pelagic sharks; however, there is work to be done at home. The OWC also urged the U.S. to establish domestic precautionary measures to insure the well-being of pelagic sharks in all US waters.
The workshop was sponsored by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Ocean Wildlife Campaign is a coalition of Center for Marine Conservation, National Audubon Society, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Conservation Society, and World Wildlife Fund. It was created to tackle the complex challenge of conserving and restoring large ocean fishes, including sharks, tunas, and swordfish. The Ocean Wildlife Campaign is generously supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.