Overfishing and bycatch of European sharks and rays put ocean health in jeopardy

Posted on April, 08 2021

Curbing the fate of European sharks and rays will benefit the health of our seas
62 of the 110 species of sharks and rays in Portuguese waters are under threat from overfishing and bycatch - the unintentional capture of marine wildlife by commercial fisheries - research from Associação Natureza Portugal (ANP) and WWF reveals. Portugal has the EU’s third highest number of shark and ray catches after Spain and France, with up to 1.5 million animals estimated to be captured annually. Altogether, EU Member States have the second highest share of recorded shark and ray catches in the world (around 18% of global catches in 2018).

The EU’s Regional Plan of Action for Sharks and Rays was adopted over a decade ago to ensure the conservation and management of sharks and their long-term sustainable use. However, transparent reporting of bycatch has been an ongoing issue in the EU, as has the reporting of catches, landings and trade of sharks and rays at species level and proper management of shark and ray fisheries. This means that the true figures often remain unknown, and this problem will persist until the best tools and practices are adopted, such as proper observer coverage and the use of onboard cameras to record catches in high risk fisheries. 

Steps forward were recently taken by the European Parliament, which affirmed the need for mandatory data collection of all incidental catches in fishers’ logbooks and for transparent reporting by all Member States via publication of their fisheries information. However, the failure of MEPs to mandate the use of Remote Electronic Monitoring (i.e. onboard cameras) for accurate records particularly in fleets at high risk for catches of sensitive and protected species, undermines the effectiveness of logbook data. 

Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office said, “the ongoing revision of the EU’s fisheries control system is at a critical juncture to address this plundering of our seas and to support the role of fisheries in meeting the EU Green Deal, Biodiversity Strategy and Farm to Fork Strategy. All EU Member States, from the worst bycatch offenders to those who embrace the latest technologies to support sustainable fisheries, need effective policies and tools to support a healthy and resilient ocean.” 

The study finds that the instances of bycatch in Portuguese waters occur with nearly all types of fishing gear employed by the fleet, both in artisanal fisheries and by industrial vessels operating within and outside of Portugal's Exclusive Economic Zone. For most fish stocks whose fisheries overlap with shark and ray territories, and in the absence of measures to minimise bycatch, robust data to support stricter catch limits and application of a precautionary approach to fisheries in the absence of such data, overfishing persists and many species continue to face risks.

For Ana Henriques, Oceans and Fisheries specialist at ANP|WWF and lead author of the report, “an ocean without sharks and rays is an empty and dying ocean. These species are central to the good management of marine ecosystems - they are true guardians of the ocean. Ensuring that the Biodiversity Strategy’s action plan, which is due this year, addresses the threats of overconsumption and incidental catches along with conservation is a strategic, urgent and very necessary approach.”

There are over 1,200 known species of sharks, rays and chimaeras, and they are known to play key roles in the balance of marine ecosystems and thus for the people who depend on a healthy and resilient ocean. Yet, despite their importance, an estimated 100 million sharks and rays are killed by fishing and bycatch worldwide each year. As a result, over a quarter of the world’s species are currently threatened. At European level, the situation is even worse, with nearly a third of Mediterranean species fished close to the level of extinction.

Effective enforcement of the Common Fisheries Policy, together with new legislation to realise the Biodiversity and Farm To Fork Strategies are crucial to curb the fate of European sharks and rays and, in turn, of the health of our seas. 


Notes to editors:

Click here to read Sharks and Rays: Ocean guardians in crisis - the full report (in Portuguese), and the report summary (in English). 

The report makes the following key recommendations:
  • The development, adoption and implementation of a National Action Plan for Sharks and Rays in Portugal 
  • Promote the effective protection and recovery of stocks of threatened target and non-target species from fishing (bycatch), either through CITES or through national legislation that includes the establishment of conservation and management measures based on the best available knowledge and the precautionary principle
  • Take measures to minimise bycatch and discards and implement good onboard practices that improve the survival of individuals released into the sea
  • Improve the quality of scientific data on fisheries and other Elasmobranch species in Portuguese waters 
  • Ban the capture, trade and consumption of endangered species and introduce stricter regulation of shark and ray products for all species intended for trade
  • Improve control and monitoring of Elasmobranch fisheries, including artisanal and polyvalent fisheries
  • Define protected zones with total fishing bans that take into account essential species and habitats for sharks and rays

About ANP|WWF:
WWF is an independent conservation organization with over 30 million followers and a global network active in nearly 100 countries. Our mission is to stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit panda.org/news for the latest news and media resources. 

ANP is a Portuguese NGO that works in Portugal in association with WWF, with a view to conserving biological and resource diversity nationals, looking for a planet where people can live in harmony with nature. Follow our work at www.natureza-portugal.org.

Angelika Pullen
Communications Director
+32 473 94 79 66

Rita Rodrigues - ANP|WWF 
+351 962911072
62 of the 110 species of sharks and rays in Portuguese waters are under threat from overfishing and bycatch
© Jorge Fontes