Overfishing, illegal practices and plastic pollution threaten to wipe out sharks and rays in the Mediterranean Sea, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned on Friday.
The area’s sharks are the most endangered in the world, WWF added in a report issued on the occasion of Shark Awareness Day, celebrated on 14 July.
“Sharks are the kings of the ocean and we are bound to lose them soon in the Mediterranean,” Director Guiseppe Di Carlo of the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, tweeted on Friday. Rays are also at risk.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies 27% of the species of sharks and rays living in the Mediterranean as “critically endangered” as against 2% globally. What is especially worrying, the WWF notes, is that the situation is getting worse even though the threats have been known for ages.
The biggest danger is overfishing. Sharks and rays are sometimes directly targeted by fishermen, but they are most often entangled in fishing nets as by-catch, and later thrown back into the sea, by which time most no longer have any chance of survival. In its report, the environmental protection NGO shows that many fishing techniques, such as trawler, long line and gillnet fishing, result in significant catches of sharks and rays, whereas these are not the species sought.
Moreover, illegal practices continue, such as driftnet fishing, banned since the early 2000s.
There is also an illegal trade in sharks and rays. DNA samples show that shark is sometimes presented to consumers as swordfish, according to the WWF, which noted that this also endangers people’s health because certain types of sharks have high concentrations of mercury that exceed the legal safety limits.
From their position at the top of the food chain, sharks accumulate many pollutants in their bodies, the Fund noted, pointing out that the Mediterranean has, historically been a dumping ground into which runoff water sweeps heavy metals, pesticides and other substances.
Listing other factors, WWF noted that increasingly dense populations along the Coasts and mass tourism directly threaten marine biodiversity, while plastics and fishing equipment that have been lost, abandoned or simply dumped into the sea make things worse. Sharks, the fund said, have been known to swallow or choke on pieces of plastic.
Indispensable to marine biodiversity, sharks are particularly vulnerable. They grow slowly, reach maturity late and produce few offspring after long gestation periods. Their ability to adapt is thus limited.
Solutions proposed by the report include not fishing in critical habitats or using adapted equipment so as to eliminate bycatches. It is also important to improve populations’ knowledge of sharks and commercialised species in order to strengthen conservation efforts and ensure the transparency and legality of the fishing sector, the WWF urged.