Page last updated at 18:08 GMT, Tuesday, 10 June 2008 19:08 UK

Fast fall of Mediterranean sharks

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Top cuts on the quay

Sharks in the Mediterranean Sea have undergone a massive decline over the last two centuries, scientists have discovered from historical records.

Some species shrunk by more than 99% over the period, mainly due to fishing.

Researchers used fishermens' notes and archive records to plot population trends of five top predatory sharks.

The study, in the journal Conservation Biology, comes just weeks after a warning that half of the world's ocean-going sharks face extinction.

Sharks and their close relatives, the rays, are particularly vulnerable to over-fishing as they grow and reproduce slowly.

Sharks have never been managed - they slipped under the radar
Rebecca Greenberg, Oceana

"There is a long history of fishing in the Mediterranean, especially coastal fishing," said study leader Francesco Ferretti from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, who has been working in the Mediterranean with the Lenfest Ocean Program.

"And until recently, these species were not valuable - they were caught as bycatch by boats chasing important species such as tuna - so they were declining without anyone noticing," he told BBC News.

Shark traps

There are 47 species of shark found regularly in the Mediterranean, of which 20 are top predators.

Fishermen tended to regard them as pests, according to records amassed by the researchers.

For five of the 20 top predators, the records - from traditional tuna "traps", commercial boats and fishermen using rods and lines - were good enough to show that catches had been large enough to produce a substantial decline.

Shark heads. Image: BBC
Sharks are now common in fish markets in several European countries

The hammerhead population, they conclude, has declined by more than 99.99% over the last 200 years. Records show hammerheads largely vanished from coastal waters around 1900; in the last 20 years they have barely been seen in pelagic zones either.

The blue shark and the two mackerel sharks have also apparently vanished from coastal waters. Threshers are occasionally still caught in tuna traps; even so, their numbers across the Mediterranean have fallen by more than 99.99%.

For the rest of the 20 top predators, records were not comprehensive enough to plot a trend, though declines were evident. Francesco Ferretti suggests that may be because their decline began even earlier, when records were even more sparse.

Studies on historical populations are rare, he said; but when they do plot declines, that should lead to listing as a threatened species.

"This study will hopefully contribute to a greater threat status for hammerheads and blue sharks, and other assessments in the Mediterranean," he said.

Conservation limits

Conservationists have long campaigned for better protection for sharks and rays, which have not traditionally been considered by the organisations that regulate fisheries.

Blue shark. Image: Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch

"Historically, they didn't have high economic value, and as resource priorities and management are linked with the economic value of fisheries, sharks have never been managed - they slipped under the radar," commented Rebecca Greenberg, a marine scientist with the conservation group Oceana.

"Now, many larger shark-catching nations are taking advantage of the fact that they're not regulated; and along with the negative image that many people have of sharks, that's led to the desperate situation we have today."

What worries conservation scientists most is that the disappearance of top predators from an ecosystem can produce unexpected changes.

The apparent rise in jellyfish numbers - documented in different regions of the oceans, including the Spanish coast of the Mediterranean - may be partly due to falling numbers of predators such as bluefin tuna and turtles.

Conservation groups believe a set of measures to protect sharks worldwide, but especially in the Mediterranean - the "most dangerous area in the world" for them, according to Rebecca Greenberg - is long overdue.

These would include the policing of bans on finning - which removes fins for the lucrative eastern cuisine market - measures to reduce bycatch, and the setting of regional and global catch limits.

Sharks swim closer to extinction
22 May 08 |  Science/Nature
Quota calls fail to catch the drift
17 Dec 07 |  Science/Nature
Fishermen ride sustainability wave
31 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
Shark trade restriction bid fails
08 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature
'Only 50 years left' for sea fish
02 Nov 06 |  Science/Nature
World's biggest fish 'shrinking'
17 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature

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