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Sharks and Rays: Migratory Species with a Story Worth Telling

By Luke Warwick

The whale shark is one of only three shark species that are filter feeders like many of the whales with which it is compared due to its enormous size. Photo credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

Most people have heard their share of fish stories, some of which are entertaining and a few that defy belief. Here’s one you may not have heard. Last month, a little known international treaty took a significant step to protect several species that we often don’t think about—including the world’s largest fish species, the magnificent whale shark—but that are essential to the health of the planet’s oceans.

This particular story happened in the Philippines at a meeting of the parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, more commonly known as CMS. The meeting, the twelfth since 1979, was significant for the whale shark and five other shark and ray species, all of which received new protections and commitments to conservation action.

The CMS is a unique United Nations Convention in that it deals exclusively with the management of the world’s migratory species due to the complex, often compounded threats migrations can bring. After years focused on crucial action to protect the world’s birds, cetaceans, and even the monarch butterfly, the countries that make up this intergovernmental body have begun in recent years to focus on the conservation of the world’s migratory sharks and rays.

This is an important step, as a lack of management throughout most of their migratory ranges has placed many of the world’s sharks and ray in peril – with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessing that a quarter of all shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction.

There are more than a thousand species of these cartilaginous fish in the world’s oceans, but the six that were just listed by CMS are among those most in need of conservation action. The listed species and their reasons for listing are as varied as the 124 countries that are members of this convention.

A close-up view of a Giant Manta (Manta birostris) as it rises towards the surface with sharksuckers hitching a ride on its underside in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. The Giant Manta is the largest of all rays with a wing span that reaches approximately 25ft. Photo credit: Keith Ellenbogen/WCS.

The whale shark is one of only three shark species that are filter feeders like many of the whales with which it is compared due to its enormous size (as long as 40 feet, the length of a school bus). While its oceanwide migrations are still poorly understood, it can be found in such wide ranging areas as South Africa, Indonesia, and Belize.

Last year the IUCN determined that due to continued population declines they are now globally Endangered. They are also a huge source of ecotourism revenue- including in the Philippines, where several local communities have come to rely on the dive and snorkel tourism revenue they bring.

These gentle giants are now included in CMS’s Appendix I, thus mandating that they are fully protected wherever they migrate. The same level of protection was provided to the European angel shark, which has been driven nearly to extinction due to unsustainable fisheries and continued bycatch.

The common guitarfish and whitespotted wedgefish—bizarre looking species that are often called ‘flat-sharks’—were listed on CMS Appendix II. These shark-like rays are incredibly vulnerable and are rapidly heading the way of the angel shark. With the IUCN identifying guitarfish and wedgefish as among the most threatened shark and ray families, this CMS Appendix II listing, which calls for better cooperative management globally, can kick start action to make these families conservation priorities wherever they are found.

Finally, blue and dusky sharks were also listed on CMS Appendix II. Again, these are species for which this listing will help governments see them as priorities for proper management and cooperation. With both species represented heavily in the global shark fin trade and suffering declines from the often-unmanaged fishing pressure that brings, it is crucial to ensure that blue and dusky shark fisheries are sustainable. CMS implementation can help.

With both blue (pictured) and dusky shark species represented heavily in the global shark fin trade, it is crucial to ensure that their fisheries are sustainable. Photo credit: Keith Ellenbogen/WCS.

My WCS colleagues and I also joined with the Manta Trust to submit a concerted action proposal—a mechanism within CMS that will support work to implement existing Appendix I and II listings for the world’s manta and mobula rays. These species were only listed three years ago by CMS. We were delighted to see the proposal adopted and look forward to working with governments in implementing these listings globally to help foster conservation of these amazing animals.

The WCS delegation to CMS also worked closely with governments, scientists, and other non-governmental organizations to offer our scientific and technical advice on these listing proposals and a wide range of other actions designed to promote better shark and ray management. It was fantastic to be able to offer that support and to see continued political commitment to this issue, with the species listing proposals coming from countries in Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific—a truly global effort.

With that political commitment in place, we must now focus on action. WCS will offer support and guidance on the crucial next phase of implementation, whether that be fully protecting species or setting sustainable fisheries limits, to ensure that these sharks and rays can continue their migrations for generations to come.

That international bodies such as CITES and CMS have begun to make shark and ray species a conservation priority is a long-needed and very important step – the first chapter of what looks to become a newly inspiring fish story.

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Luke Warwick is Associate Director for Sharks and Rays at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).