Protection of shark species under scrutiny

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As global shark populations continue to decline and commercial fishing grows in popularity, Lindsay Davidson remains determined to improve shark fisheries management through analyzing fishery policies and taking conservation action.

Late last year, the journal Science published Davidson’s letter urging other scientists and government bodies to recheck the strength of global shark sanctuaries. These sanctuaries protect some types of sharks from commercial fishing by blocking off a portion of a nation’s waters from fishers.

Normally, these boundaries are implemented by small island nations like the Maldives or the Seychelles. While the formation of sanctuaries is a positive step towards protecting shark populations from further shrinking, Davidson warns others to be wary about unspoken specifications written into sanctuary policies. This includes protection from “commercial fishing” exclusively, a lack of coverage for some species, and variation in the size of sanctuaries.

“[Positive media] may give the illusion that the sharks are completely protected now. In reality, we don’t know how small island nations can implement shark sanctuaries or if they have the money to enforce them,” said Davidson. “I don’t want the creation of shark sanctuaries to prevent scientists from implementing more effective shark management.”

Davidson completed her bachelor’s of science in geography with a concentration in environmental resource management at the University of Windsor. She is presently studying at SFU towards a master’s of science in marine biology while working as a biology teaching assistant.

Her work examines the underlying causes of declining shark catches to authorities in commercial shark fishing. “Countries could be implementing better fishery management and therefore not catching as many sharks, or it’s possible that we’re seeing a global decrease in shark catches due to shark population decline,” says Davidson.

On average, 26 to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, and even low levels of fishing may cause species to become endangered or potentially extinct. Out of over 1,000 different species of sharks, rays, and skates, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has marked 25 species of sharks, rays, and skates as critically endangered and 41 species as endangered.

“Sharks grow so big, take a long time to mature, and they don’t produce a lot of pups. There is quite a high demand for their fins and shark meat, so that has raised a lot of concerns throughout the scientific community about these populations drastically decreasing,” explained Davidson.

Davidson also worked with the IUCN Shark Specialist group — which is based in Vancouver and co-chaired by SFU professor Nick Dulvy — to pinpoint areas of shark species richness through a series of distribution maps. She has also collaborated with them to read through policies for shark fishing countries, and to identify the effectiveness of the tools they use to manage shark populations — this will allow the IUCN and other groups to take effective steps towards improving shark conservation.

“One of our main goals is to highlight areas where policy or shark fishing management could disproportionately benefit the population. Areas with lots of fishing or threatened species might be a good place to help that area boost their shark fishing management,” she concluded.