Experts demand better protection for sharks

With their pointy teeth and fearsome reputations, sharks may not be the best poster child for species in danger, but environmentalists say the predators are in dire need of protection.

Marine experts and conservation groups hope an Atlantic conservation conference in Paris this week will bolster what they say are disastrously inadequate rules on shark capture.

"There are shark populations that have declined by 99 percent, so it's a real severe situation, and there are virtually no protections at an international level," said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, a marine wildlife scientist at conservation group Oceana.

Oceana wants delegates to toughen the existing ban on shark-finning — the practice of slashing prized fins off the animals and tossing them overboard to die — as well as prohibiting the capture of some threatened Atlantic sharks and setting catch limits for others.

Right now, only one shark species is under international protection in the Atlantic — the bigeye thresher — and there are no catch limits on others, it said in a report released Monday.

Elaborate international fishing regulations and quotas govern other types of fish, such as tuna, the main focus of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), meeting this week through Saturday in Paris.

Sharks have historically been an afterthought in the fishing industry. ICCAT deals with highly migratory sharks because they are often an accidental catch for tuna fishermen.

Conservation groups say the rise of Asia's middle class, combined with the continent's penchant for pricey shark fin soup, a traditional delicacy, has turned sharks into a lucrative target.

"It's time the world looks at sharks and starts to set serious measures to save them, otherwise these creatures that have been around since before the time of the dinosaur will quickly go the way of the dinosaur," said Matt Rand, director for global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group.

More than 1.3 million highly migratory sharks were caught in the Atlantic in 2008, the year with the most recent data, Oceana calculated based on figures from ICCAT. Even then, Oceana believes the figure is a "gross underestimate" because 11 out of ICCAT's 48 member countries didn't report any shark catches at all in 2008.

"If you took those sharks and lined them up, they would stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, and that's just (in) one year," said Oceana's Wilson.

Oceana said 21 of the world's 72 highly migratory shark species were reported caught in the Atlantic in 2008. It said three-fourths of those 21 species are designated as threatened with extinction in parts of the Atlantic by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Oceana, Pew Environment Group and others say the existing ban against shark-finning in the Atlantic has too many loopholes, and fishermen should be required to bring sharks back to shore without their fins severed.

Fishermen now are allowed to slice off the fins before they bring the sharks ashore as long as they don't throw the bodies overboard. That makes fraud easier to commit, since it's harder for inspectors to make sure no bodies have been thrown out to sea, environmentalists say.

While ICCAT and other regional commissions regulate fishing, trade bans are handled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

Environmentalists were sorely disappointed by a CITES meeting in March, where six species of sharks failed to get protection despite studies showing their numbers had fallen by up to 85 percent because of the booming fin trade.