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Rising global shark mortality rates persist despite bans on finning, reveals study

A new study finds that shark mortality increased by 4 per cent in coastal fisheries and decreased by 7 per cent in pelagic fisheries, between 2012 and 2019, despite legislation to ban shark finning increasing tenfold over this period.

The study also shows that successful management of shark fisheries can lead to a decrease in mortality; such is the case with retention bans and other measures taken by regional fisheries management organisations. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Shark finning bans have had little effect on protecting global shark populations, according to new research. However, shark mortality decreased in pelagic fisheries, which suggests that regulatory measures in regional fisheries have had some positive impact.

In a new study published in Science, an international team of researchers analyzed shark catch data from 150 countries and the high seas between 2012 and 2019, and also conducted in-depth interviews with shark fishery experts to comprehend the fate of an estimated 1.1 billion sharks caught by fisheries around the world.

The research finds that shark mortality increased by an estimated 4 per cent in coastal fisheries between 2012 and 2019. In contrast, regulated fisheries on the high seas, especially across the Atlantic and western Pacific, decreased by about 7 per cent. However, the authors suggest these figures are likely underestimated due to the difficulty of tracking and collating fisheries data.

Over the study’s seven-year span, legislation to ban shark finning increased tenfold. For instance, in 2012, several nations, including Brazil, Taiwan and Venezuela, dictated that fishers must land sharks whole, without their fins cut off, in attempts to deter the practice of shark finning. Other nations banned shark fishing altogether, which is what Fiji did in 2013.

Other regulations aimed at protecting sharks were also enacted during the study period. For example, in 2012, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, a tuna regional fishery management organisation that works to conserve tuna and other marine species in the eastern Pacific Ocean, banned the fishing and selling of oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), which was listed as critically endangered in 2018.

Several shark species were also listed under CITES Appendix II, including oceanic whitetip sharks and three species of hammerhead in 2013, and silky sharks and three species of thresher sharks in 2016.

Studies have previously suggested that conservation messaging focused solely or primarily on finning as the major conservation threat to sharks potentially distracts from the more central issue of overfishing.

Catherine Macdonald, director, University of Miami Shark Research and Conservation Program

Yet, despite these many regulatory measures, the study finds that shark fishing mortality increased by about 76-80 million sharks per year. Ninety-five per cent of these deaths occurred in national waters, areas within the jurisdiction of individual countries.

Overall, shark finning regulations do not appear to have significantly decreased shark mortality rates, and may have even increased it, “possibly by incentivizing full use of sharks and creating additional markets for shark meat and cartilage, among other products,” the research suggests.

The study also notes that shark mortality is increasing in certain coastal hotspots, where shark fishing regulations are insufficient. This is particularly the case for countries in the tropics, such as Indonesia, Brazil, Mauritania and Mexico.

Catherine Macdonald, director of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the University of Miami, who was not involved in this study, says the findings support the idea that regulations around finning do not necessarily reduce shark fisheries mortality.

“Studies have previously suggested that conservation messaging focused solely or primarily on finning as the major conservation threat to sharks potentially distracts from the more central issue of overfishing, and this paper seems to offer some evidence to support arguments that ending finning and conserving sharks are related but not identical goals that may require distinct policy and management approaches,” Macdonald tells Mongabay in an email.

Study co-author Darcy Bradley, a senior ocean scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a researcher at UC Santa Barbara, says the research “uncovered a mismatch between public interest in the problem, subsequent regulatory action, and unintended consequences of regulation.”

“In the early 2000s, all eyes were on shark finning, a wasteful and frankly somewhat sinister practice,” Bradley tells Mongabay in an emailed statement. “But there is an obvious way to stop shark finning while continuing to catch and kill sharks — you land the sharks whole. The experts with whom we spoke confirmed this and noted the emergence of new markets for a variety of shark products often including mislabeled seafood.”

However, the findings aren’t “all bad news,” she says.

“We found evidence that top-down management can successfully curtail high levels of shark fishing in some contexts,” she says. “Within countries, strong governance was consistently associated with lower relative shark fishing mortality; we also recorded reductions in overall shark fishing mortality over the last decade in open-ocean fisheries regulated by tuna regional fisheries management organisations, particularly where retention bans and other strict management measures were in place.”

Study co-author Leonardo Feitosa, a Ph.D. student at UC Santa Barbara, says the study highlights several opportunities to implement solutions to help protect sharks.

“Solutions … now should focus on strategies to decrease shark mortality as a whole and not just specific parts of the trade,” Feitosa tells Mongabay in an emailed statement. “Another important point that would significantly improve the quality of data and hence management efforts would be to increase the amount of on-board observers for industrial and commercial small-scale fisheries that catch sharks.”

Luke Warwick, director of shark and ray conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was also not involved in the study, says the publication in Science is an “important and timely study” that analyzes the successes and challenges of shark fishery management in the past decade, when international legislative steps were taken to decrease shark catches.

“There are now opportunities to change the management of these fisheries, especially with the new CITES listings that cover a wide range of the most frequently caught coastal species, creating the strong driver for better management that the study notes has been effective in open pelagic (open ocean) fisheries,” Warwick tells Mongabay in an email.

“The focus moving forward has to be implementing those listings to reduce the coastal mortality as rapidly as possible, in a way that is effective, but also equitable given the complexity of the fisheries in question and people’s reliance on the food they provide.”

“Greater support needs to be provided to these nations to deal with this complex problem,” Warwick adds, “and develop innovative solutions to reduce shark mortality before it’s too late.”

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