Hope Against Fin Trade for Two Shark-Family Species

(CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service has listed two guitarfish as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to intense exploitation for the shark fin trade. The listing action was prompted by a 2013 petition by the WildEarth Guardians conservation group to list 81 marine species under the act.

The common guitarfish and the blackchin guitarfish were once found in the Mediterranean Sea and along the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean from Spain to Angola. They are no longer found near Spain, France and Italy mainly due to intensive fishing pressure, in part for the shark fin trade, and they have sharply declined in other areas of their historical ranges.

“Receiving Endangered Species Act protections is great news for these guitarfish,” Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said. “Our oceans are suffering because of relentless human exploitation. Protecting these declining species is an important step in taking responsibility for the failing health of marine ecosystems.”

Although some regulations exist limiting the practice of finning, the controversial practice of cutting the fins off live shark-family species and throwing them back into the water to die, the agency found that they were inadequate and poorly enforced. Shark fins are highly desirable in Asian countries for shark fin soup and command prices as high as $85 per kilogram in Hong Kong, the largest shark fin market.

Off the west coast of Africa, guitarfish populations have shown significant declines because they are targeted for the illegal fin trade, the agency said. Like other shark-family species, or elasmobranchs, guitarfish grow to maturity slowly and have low reproductive rates, meaning that the fish are unlikely to rebound from intense and relentless fishing pressure.

Other complications to the survival of these species include habitat destruction or degradation of coastal zones due to an increasing human population, as well as small fragmented populations that can result in genetic drift or loss of genetic variation. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, rising ocean temperatures, a shift in biodiversity and other possible effects of climate change increasingly threaten marine species world-wide, and present an unknown level of threat for these guitarfish in the future.

“Protecting our oceans’ imperiled species is more important than ever given that 2016 broke the heat record for the third year in a row; as the inauguration approaches, the Trump administration must accept climate science and start protecting imperiled species for the sake of our planet,” Jones said.

The Guardians noted that even though President Obama issued an Executive Order in July 2010 exhorting the agency to “protect, maintain, and restore the health and biological diversity of ocean… ecosystems,” and to “use the best available science and knowledge to inform decisions affecting the ocean,” that only about six percent of the species protected under the ESA are marine species. “More than half of all marine species may be at risk of extinction by 2100 without significant conservation efforts,” the group said.

Of the 81 species included in the Guardian’s petition, the agency’s initial three-month assessments found that 27 species merited further study and possible listing. Final ESA protection has been determined for three corals and one sea snake, three angelfish species (also in the shark family), and five bony fishes, including the Banggai cardinalfish, African coelacanth, and the Gulf, Island and Nassau groupers. The agency found some of the species that underwent year-long reviews did not merit listing after all, some did not qualify as distinct population segments or had taxonomic problems, and some are still in the process of being listed, such five other shark-family species and two small dolphins.

The final listing is effective Feb. 21.

Photo credit: Johan Fredriksson