Doubts remain over global future of sharks

Oct. 7, 2011 at 2:01 PM
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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Doubts remain over the global future of sharks despite an international coalition's commitment toward conservation and try to halt what experts see as a steady slide toward extinction of numerous shark species.

Overfishing of sharks, which reproduce and mature slowly, poses risks for the oceans' ecology and the entire global environment, analysts said at the gathering of an international coalition aiming to save sharks.

Up to 73 million of sharks are killed each year to support a global trade in shark fins. As a result, scientific studies indicate, one-third of all sharks are at risk of extinction. Some shark species, including the scalloped hammerhead, have declined by up to 98 percent, figures indicated.

Worries over the future of sharks were voiced when Honduras and seven other nations met to look at ways of better managing commercial catches, avoid depletion in marine resources already in peril and minimize wastage. They announced an initiative to prevent shark extinction.

Analysts said the agreed measures would work only if the group's recommendations could be enforced, of which there is limited possibility in the near future.

Concern over the future of sharks coincides with alarm over a threat of extinction facing certain dolphin species and renewed excessive hunting of whales by Japan.

Support for developing shark sanctuaries is growing worldwide but the initiatives come at a time when governments are hard pressed for cash and there's little enthusiasm for projects that do not promise tangible results favored by politicians. Strong shark industry lobbies are in place worldwide to prevent international measures that jeopardize their business.

The Micronesian republic of Marshall Islands last week declared its waters the world's largest shark sanctuary but with a population of about 67,000 spread over five islands and 29 atolls the islands are totally dependent on U.S. defense resources to ensure successful security measures against violators.

Smaller sanctuaries for sharks were announced by Tokelau in the South Pacific, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Honduras. None are fully enforceable without huge outlays on defense and security and significant increases in enforcement personnel.

Trade bans on sharks and shark products, recently announced in California, Washington and Oregon and internationally in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, are also expensive to enforce, analysts said.

Environmentalist campaigners, however, remain optimistic.

"With each new sanctuary, sharks gain another ally in their fight for survival," Matt Rand, the Pew Environment Group's director of global shark conservation, said.

Pew is spearheading international efforts to establish shark sanctuaries where targeted fishing for the species is prohibited. However, large numbers of sharks are caught and killed in non-targeted fishing.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said his country backed the conservation effort but was powerless beyond its maritime borders in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean.

"The shark sanctuary here supports the health of our ocean environment and economy," he said. "However, these species migrate beyond our waters, so it is necessary for us to work together to ensure that their populations and marine ecosystems are healthy."

Palauan President Johnson Toribiong said, "Our ocean's health depends on sharks" and said he hoped greater international cooperating on saving the sharks would result in more positive action. Palau island republic lies about 500 miles east of the Philippines and 2,000 miles south of Tokyo.

Only a few of the major shark hunting nations in the region have indicated they want to join the fight to save the sharks.

A declaration signed by the Bahamas, Colombia, Honduras, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, Micronesia and Palau, is expected to declare up to 2 million additional square miles off limits to commercial shark fishing. The question of effective enforcement of the ban remains unanswered.

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