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Sharks and rays in peril

Jessica Aldred and Ian Sample

Effect of overfishing could be greater still, say experts

London: More than a quarter of sharks and rays in the northeast Atlantic face extinction through the effects of overfishing, with 7 per cent classed as critically endangered, conservationists have warned.

The Red List published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature says 26 per cent of these species are at risk of being wiped out and a fifth are now regarded as “near threatened.”

The true number of fish under threat may be larger, the report by the IUCN’s shark specialist group cautions, because scientists have too little information on 27 per cent of them to determine the health of their populations.

Many of the animals at risk are slow-breeding fish that have few young and reach sexual maturity late in life, a fact that makes them especially vulnerable to the fisheries’ activities.

The spiny dogfish (rock salmon) and porbeagle shark, both caught for their meat, are critically endangered. They are among a handful of species under EU fishing restrictions, though these quotas are well above the zero-catch levels proposed by scientists at the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (Ices).

Angel sharks and common skates are also critically endangered in the northeast Atlantic, according to the report. The realisation is prompting Ices scientists to call for greater restrictions on fisheries which either deliberately catch the fish or land them as bycatch.

The basking shark, the world’s second largest fish, is listed as vulnerable.

The report was released ahead of European commission recommendations for tighter controls on fishing, including zero-catches for porbeagle sharks and spiny dogfish. The advice is also for a ban on fishing vessels keeping aboard common skates, undulate rays, white skates and angel sharks, which should be returned safely to the water wherever possible.

Fisheries ministers are due to discuss the new restrictions at a meeting next month. If the quotas are cut in line with the proposals, fisheries would lose permission to catch 600 tonnes of porbeagles and 2,600 tonnes of spiny dogfish.

Sonja Fordham of the Shark Alliance, a co-author of the report, said: “The north Atlantic is one of the most overfished regions in the world and yet only four species of sharks and rays are protected. This is a clear consequence of overfishing, whether these species are targeted or taken as bycatch.”

Another species listed as critically endangered is the deepwater gulper shark, sought for its rich liver oil, which is used by the cosmetics industry. In 2005 Ices urged the EU to ban deepwater shark fishing, but current quotas will allow more than 800 tonnes to be taken next year.

The IUCN finds that the percentage of sharks and rays in the north-east Atlantic region classified as threatened is higher than the figure for the species globally — which is given to be 18 per cent. It says the decline in numbers is due to the activities of fishing nations such as Spain, Portugal, France and Britain.

Two species of guitarfish, whose fins are highly sought after for use in shark fin soup in Asian markets, are classified as endangered in the northeast Atlantic. There are no limits on catches of them in European waters.

Scientists working for the IUCN said that it could already be too late to save two types of sawfish, both of which were critically endangered. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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