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“We must not only defend sharks because they are useful and beautiful, but we must protect the sea that feeds them. And also restore the balance of the great ocean’s ecosystem, of which sharks form an important link and on which we ultimately depend.”

Sharks and rays – vulnerable species

diver1Sharks and rays play an extremely important role in maintaining the balance and stability of our ocean’s ecosystems. Sharks are apex predators and contribute to the regulation of our coastal and pelagic foodwebs and influence all subsequent aspects of the marine ecosystem.

Modern research has documented the vast decline of many large shark species and raised global awareness of the threatened status of many other elasmobranch species and the need for management. This research has however also highlighted the frequent lack of information about the population status of most elasmobranch species at the national, regional and global level. Further research is therefore urgently needed to improve our understanding, particularly at a regional level (given the migratory nature of many elasmobranch species) if effective transboundary management and conservation strategies are to be developed.

Sharks and rays are targeted for both their meat and fins. The high demand and prices paid for shark fin in particular has resulted in a well developed global fishery which mostly operates illegally. Both sharks and particularly rays are also often caught accidentally by fisheries targeting other species, such as tuna, and this incidental by-catch is discarded at sea. Globally, it is estimated that 860,000 tonnes of sharks are removed each year from our oceans; with an average shark size of 15kg, corresponding to about 90 million sharks per annum. The numbers of shark and ray caught and incidental catches is however often poorly recorded. For example, the number of shark fins traded often does not accord with number of shark reportedly caught. So while the numbers of sharks and rays caught annually is alarming large, it is still certainly an under-estimate.
Sharks and rays are particularly vulnerable to fishing due to their:

  • Long lifespan: > 30 years, but the lifespan of some species like the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) can reach 100 years;
  • Late maturity: sharks reach sexual or reproductive maturity at a late age (for example, 10 to 15 years for the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini);
  • Low fecundity: a female shark produces few young per litter (2-38 per litter for the scalloped hammerhead shark) and some species such as the sandtiger shark (Carcharias taurus) produce only 2 young per breeding season;
  • Long gestation period: depending on the species it takes from 7 months to 2 years for embryos to develop inside the mother.

Due to these life history traits shark and ray populations typically grow slowly and are very slow to recover once depleted. Thus, almost ten percent of elasmobranch species (sharks and rays) are on the IUCN Red List and are threatened to varying degrees by risk of extinction.

Cousteau and Sharks

GRK_110-19Perhaps no other subject, or indeed no single animal, exemplifies the Cousteau’s message better than sharks. The first book of the famous “Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau” published in 1970, “The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea”, relates the two-year expedition (1967-1969) of JY Cousteau aboard Calypso. The expedition left Monaco to carry out one of the longest and most fascinating voyages through seas and among sharks living there, and in particular the sharks of the Red Sea. During this expedition, in response to the amazing marine wildlife of the Red Sea and the abundance of sharks observed at that time, Philippe Cousteau wrote:

“I cannot help but express the poignant sense of regret experienced by both my father and myself when we are forced to stand by helplessly and watch the destruction of cetaceans such as the great blue whale, the largest living creature of all time and one that will soon be no more than a memory. The shark need have no fear of such fate. The majority of the races of squali, to which sharks belong, are perfectly adapted to their mode of life and their enormous number makes their extermination extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

However, throughout their later expeditions in search of shark and ray populations around the globe (for example, the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico in 1974, Cocos Island in 1976 and 1987, and their observations on Great White sharks in Australia between 1989 and 1991) JY Cousteau and his team began to realise the vulnerability of these species and he and his team were among the first to bring to public attention the threats that they face.

Sharks of the Red Sea

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 16.04.17The Red Sea is a region where there is still very limited information available regarding the principal populations of shark and ray species. This lack of information is perhaps surprising considering their importance in the already large recreational dive industry in Egypt, and the developing dive industries in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Given the globally threatened status of sharks and rays and the particular importance of sharks and rays within this region, there is an urgent need to address certain key questions necessary for the formulation of appropriate management strategies.

Conservation and management of shark and ray populations requires an increased investment of human and financial resources in research and management, in developing the necessary policy, legal and institutional frameworks, and in training and capacity-building to implement management measures (IUCN 1998). In response, Equipe Cousteau is currently developing and implementing a project for the Management and Conservation of Sharks and Rays in the Red Sea. The overall goals of this project are to:

  • Improve the conservation status of sharks and rays in the Red Sea;
  • Engage in this process people that use and affect these species;
  • Enhance regional capacity for sustainable management of sharks and rays species;
  • Increase understanding about shark and rays by using the well-known Cousteau name and Equipe Cousteau resources.

Equipe Cousteau, working hand-in-hand with regional dive operators and recreational divers, launched the ‘Divers Aware of Sharks’ program in Sudan in November 2007. This is the first stage of a regional monitoring program to generate baseline data on elasmobranch species composition and abundance and to raise awareness with regional operators.