By Paul Burkhardt
Shark conservationists are tracing DNA to save endangered species and encouraging the establishment of sanctuaries for the predatory fish, according to scientists with The Pew Charitable Trusts.
With shark fins shipped to Asia mainly going through Hong Kong customs officials need to understand which sharks are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, Imogen Zethoven, director of Washington-based Pew’s global shark conservation campaign, said by phone last week from a conference in Durban, South Africa. “The most accurate way of being able to identify a shark is through DNA,” she said.
Members of the convention last year agreed on five species of sharks, including hammerhead varieties and the porbeagle, that will have to be traded with CITES permits with evidence that they have been harvested sustainably and legally. Hammerheads can grow to as long as 20 feet (6 meters) and weigh as much as 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) while porbeagles can reach 12-feet in length.
“A quarter of species of sharks and rays are going under; as a community of researchers we’re figuring out the best way to move forward,”said Demian Chapman, a shark scientist with PEW who studies their DNA. The genetic coding can show the species and where the shark originates, or “zip code,” to better focus conservation efforts, he said in a phone interview.
The non-profit organization has seen 10 shark sanctuaries established, which provide protection for the fish in a country’s exclusive economic zone, which extends up to 200 miles from shore.
The British Virgin Islands last month became the latest nation to declare a ban on commercial fishing of all sharks and rays within its waters. Palau, located in the western Pacific Ocean, was the first to declare a shark sanctuary in 2009.
Palau has become a fantastic advocate, Zethoven said. “When you arrive at the airport there’s a mural that says ’Welcome to the World’s First Shark Sanctuary,’ they’re very proud of it.”
The sanctuary covers about 600,000 square kilometers (231,661 square miles) and provides protection for 135 species of sharks.
The non-profit organization is also working on establishing the areas, which also prohibits shark trade and some fishing equipment, in nations including the Turks and Caicos islands, the Cayman Islands and Micronesia, according to Zethoven.
About 100 million sharks are killed annually, according to a 2013 study published in Marine Policy.
“Our global campaign is very much about how to better manage and protect sharks, so shark sanctuaries are one way of doing it, trying to get controls on the targeted catch of sharks or the incidental catch of sharks is another way of doing it and also dealing with the demand for shark fin in Asia,” Zethoven said.