Sharks face rising odds of extinction even as other big fish populations recover

Conservation efforts and fishery management have allowed tuna and billfish to recover

Fishers pull in a large Atlantic bluefin tuna from choppy seas

Large, predatory, open ocean fish — a group that includes Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) like this one — have benefitted from successful fisheries management and conservation efforts in recent decades.

Iñigo Onandia

After decades of population declines, the future is looking brighter for several tuna and billfish species, such as southern bluefin tuna, black marlins and swordfish, thanks to years of successful fisheries management and conservation actions. But some sharks that live in these fishes’ open water habitats are still in trouble, new research suggests.

These sharks, including oceanic whitetips and porbeagles, are often caught by accident within tuna and billfish fisheries. And a lack of dedicated management of these species has meant their chances of extinction continue to rise, researchers report in the Nov. 11 Science

The analysis evaluates the extinction risk of 18 species of large ocean fish over nearly seven decades. It provides “a view of the open ocean that we have not had before,” says Colin Simpfendorfer, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Australia who was not involved in this research.

“Most of this information was available for individual species, but the synthesis for all of the species provides a much broader picture of what is happening in this important ecosystem,” he says.

In recent years, major global biodiversity assessments have documented declines in species and ecosystems across the globe, says Maria José Juan-Jordá, a fisheries ecologist at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography in Madrid. But these patterns are poorly understood in the oceans.

To fill this gap, Juan-Jordá and her colleagues looked to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which evaluates changes in a species’s extinction risk. The Red List Index evaluates the risk of extinction of an entire group of species. The team specifically targeted tunas, billfishes and sharks — large predatory fishes that have influential roles in their open ocean ecosystems. 

Red List Index assessments occur every four to 10 years. In the new study, the researchers built on the Red List criteria to develop a way of tracking extinction risk continuously over time, rather than just within the IUCN intervals.

Juan-Jordá and her colleagues did this by compiling data on species’ average age at reproductive maturity, changes in population biomass and abundance from fish stock assessments for seven tuna species, like the vulnerable bigeye and endangered southern bluefin; six billfish species, like black marlin and sailfish; and five shark species. The team combined the data to calculate extinction risk trends for these 18 species from 1950 to 2019.

The team found that the extinction risk for tunas and billfishes increased throughout the last half of the 20th century, with the trend reversing for tunas starting in the 1990s and billfishes in the 2010s. These shifts are tied to known reductions in fishing deaths for these species that occurred at the same time.

The results are positive for tunas and billfishes, Simpfendorfer says. But three of the seven tunas and three of the six billfishes that the researchers looked at are still considered near threatened, vulnerable or endangered. “Now is not the time for complacency in managing these species,” Simpfendorfer says.

But shark species are floundering in these very same waters where tuna and billfish are fished, where the sharks are often caught as bycatch. 

a silky shark swimming in open ocean
Many open ocean sharks — like the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) (pictured) — continue to decline, often accidentally caught by fishers seeking other large fish.Fabio Forget

“While we are increasingly sustainably managing the commercially important, valuable target species of tunas and billfishes,” says Juan-Jordá, “shark populations continue to decline, therefore, the risk of extinction has continued to increase.”

Some solutions going forward, says Juan-Jordá, include catch limits for some species and establishing sustainability goals within tuna and billfish fisheries beyond just the targeted species, addressing the issue of sharks that are incidentally caught. And it’s important to see if measures taken to reduce shark bycatch deaths are actually effective, she says. 

“There is a clear need for significant improvement in shark-focused management, and organizations responsible for their management need to act quickly before it is too late,” Simpfendorfer says. 

About Jake Buehler

Jake Buehler is a freelance science writer, covering natural history, wildlife conservation and Earth's splendid biodiversity, from salamanders to sequoias. He has a master's degree in zoology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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