DA NANG, Vietnam — Industrial-scale fishers will no longer be able to use two types of shark-fishing gear in the western and central Pacific Ocean after the international body in charge of tuna fisheries there agreed to ban the devices.
The measure, adopted last week at the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), is seen as a major and potentially precedent-setting win for conservationists who say urgent action is needed to stave off extinction for many shark populations. Shark numbers in the open ocean have plunged by an estimated 71% in the past half-century, with humans thought to kill 100 million of the animals each year.
“The science was on our side,” Kelly Kryc, the head of the U.S. delegation to the WCPFC, which co-proposed the measure with Canada, said in an interview after the meeting concluded. “By taking these steps, the conservation gains are quantifiable and measurable for vulnerable shark populations like oceanic whitetip and silky sharks.”
The first type of banned gear, shark lines, helps longline fishing vessels hook the ocean predators as opposed to other kinds of fish.
The second type, wire leaders, increases the likelihood of retaining a shark once it’s caught on the line. The animals’ sharp teeth can easily bite through a nylon or monofilament leader (a short segment of line attaching a hook to the main fishing line) as opposed to a leader reinforced with wire.
While the two devices were already outlawed in some countries’ territorial waters, last week’s decision marked the first time that one of the main bodies overseeing tuna fishing in international waters had outright banned their use. The decision may pave the way for other regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, to do the same.
The WCPFC previously outlawed the simultaneous use of wire leaders and shark lines, but vessels could still deploy one or the other. A similar proposal to ban them was not adopted at last year’s meeting.
The gear ban comes amid a brewing debate over whether tuna RFMOs should take a heavier hand in regulating shark fishing.
While the WCPFC and its counterparts in the Atlantic, Indian and eastern Pacific oceans were created to govern tuna fishing, some fleets operating under their mandate actually target certain species of shark.
Sometimes the fleets declare their shark fishing activities. Japan and Taiwan each have submitted a shark management plan to the WCPFC, as the body requires of flag states whose fleets deliberately catch sharks.
Other times, shark hunting happens under different auspices — as in the case, experts say, of Spain.
Spain had seven longliners operating in WCPFC waters in 2021. This so-called “Spanish swordfish fleet” indeed caught 1,778 metric tons of swordfish, representing 37% of its total catch. But it also caught 2,264 metric tons of blue shark (Prionace glauca) and 447 metric tons of mako shark (Isurus), according to WCPFC catch data.
While the EU does not appear to have submitted a shark management plan to the WCPFC, experts say the catch data strongly suggest the Spanish vessels are targeting shark rather than merely pulling them up accidentally, as so-called bycatch.
“Reputationally, it’s not something they necessarily highlight in terms of them being a shark fishery,” said Rod Cappell, director of Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management. “But you don’t need to scratch too far below the surface to see that they absolutely are targeted fisheries.”
Poseidon, a U.K.-headquartered consultancy, valued the global blue shark trade at $411 million in a recent report it co-authored for the international marine conservation NGO Oceana. Cappell stressed that while targeted shark fishing wasn’t necessarily illegal, it was widely unregulated by RFMOs.
“There’s a bit of a policy vacuum as far as this is concerned,” he said.
Under the WCPFC’s new gear ban, boats operating under a shark management plan could potentially still use wire leaders and shark lines, though they would have to gain approval from the body’s scientific committee. Vessels targeting “tuna and billfish,” which includes swordfish, would be barred from using the gear, sources with knowledge of the measure’s final language told Mongabay.
While banning wire leaders in particular will make it harder for boats to target sharks, it won’t prevent them from doing so entirely, according to Raúl García Rodríguez, senior fisheries officer at WWF Spain.
“They say they will lose basically most of the catches of blue shark” without wire leaders, he said in an interview. “I don’t think it could be like this because blue shark catches were happening already at [an] industrial level before the inclusion of this innovation. But probably they will lose a lot of weight [in terms of their overall blue shark catch].”
WCPFC member states needed until the final hours of the closing day of the meeting, Dec. 3, to reach a consensus on the gear ban, with the EU holding out until the last moment, sources with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed.
For the EU, the stakes of the WCPFC decision are relatively low: the seven Spanish longliners were the bloc’s only vessels fishing in WCPFC waters in 2021, compared with hundreds of vessels from flag states like Japan and China. And the gear ban only applies to the latitudes between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, which means the Spanish boats can keep using wire leaders in the South Pacific.
But the larger issue is whether the shark-fishing gear will be outlawed in other parts of the global ocean, where some 250 Spanish and Portuguese longliners target mainly blue shark for their fins and, increasingly, their meat.
“If countries agreed to it here, that should set a precedent for other big RFMOs,” said Kryc, an appointee of U.S. President Joe Biden who serves as deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The U.S., she added, would “see how much of an appetite there is” to pursue similar policies elsewhere.
Normally, Rodríguez said, he would not expect the EU to resist efforts at marine conservation, a front on which the bloc is typically progressive. Its carding system, for example, has helped improved fishing governance in countries such as Thailand that supply the EU market.
“But as usual, when you attach the economical interest,” priorities can change, he said. “And this is valid [to say] for almost every country.”
Press contacts for the European Commission did not respond to a list of questions by press time.
Despite the issues around undeclared targeted shark fishing, the gear ban was framed in terms of increasing the survivability of critically endangered oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) and vulnerable silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) by preventing them from being pulled up accidentally by vessels fishing for other animals. “It’s specifically about bycatch,” Kryc said.
Also in the proposal was a requirement that sharks like oceanic whitetips, which cannot be retained under any circumstances, be freed with as little fishing gear as possible remaining attached to their bodies. However, WCPFC only adopted this survivability measure in the form of a guideline, not a requirement.
And while the final language prohibits boats from using wire leaders, it allows them to stow the devices on board, creating enforcement challenges in an environment where oversight is already lax.
Longliners across the fleet of Dalian Ocean Fishing, a company that has claimed to be China’s biggest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan, for example, spent years running a massive illegal shark finning operation in WCPFC waters, according to a Mongabay investigation published in November.
The company also used the long-banned combination of wire leaders and shark lines to deliberately catch huge numbers of sharks, the investigation showed.
The best thing RFMOs can do to improve enforcement, conservationists say, is to increase the percentage of boats required to have an observer, whether human or electronic, on board. Currently the WCPFC only mandates that 5% of fishing efforts aboard longliners be covered by an observer.
“That’s very low,” said Grace Bauer, a senior associate attorney at the Seattle-based nonprofit Earthjustice, whose 2020 lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries helped set in motion the events that led the U.S. to push for the wire leader and shark line ban internationally.
“In addition to having measures requiring compliance with certain parameters, you need to ensure the fleets are actually adhering to those requirements,” she added. “And that requires observer coverage and enforcement.”
The U.S. unsuccessfully proposed raising observer coverage of longliners to 20% at last year’s WCPFC meeting. “We would love to see that increase,” Kryc said of the 5% requirement.
Overall, the ban on wire leaders and shark lines was a “huge conservation win,” according to Kryc.
“It’s a huge success story, not just for the Pacific, but for what’s possible in the future at other RFMOs,” she said.
This article by Philip Jacobson was first published by Mongabay.com on 8 December 2022. Lead Image: A shark in shallow water with remoras. Image by Andy Casagrande / Ocean Image Bank.
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