Sharks & Rays

Sharks have ruled the seas for millennia, but today the tables have turned. Nearly a quarter of all species of sharks and their close cousins, the skates and rays, are now threatened with extinction. Fisheries bycatch and virtually ubiquitous and relentless direct fishing pressure, targeting fins, meat and other products, are driving serious population declines in ocean and freshwater ecosystems. Many tens of millions are killed each year.

Sharks and rays play crucial roles in both coastal and oceanic ecosystems. Around for at least 400 million years, they are some of the world’s oldest remaining vertebrates. Yet today, these powerful predators are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly, mature late, and produce few young.

Unfortunately, most shark and ray fisheries are unregulated and very few are subject to strict fishing limits. Saving sharks and rays will require action at many levels, including the adoption of measures to ensure that international trade in their fins, meat, skin, ray gill rakers, and other parts and products is sustainable.

The conservation community celebrated a historic achievement in March 2013 with the successful listing of seven heavily traded, threatened shark and ray species on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Building on this conservation milestone, WCS and our partners, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, are developing a global 10-year initiative to conserve the earth’s sharks and rays. More specifically, WCS is leading efforts to develop a global conservation strategy that will: strengthen protection for imperiled species; improve fisheries management globally; bolster control and monitoring of trade in shark and ray products; and reduce market demand for shark fins, manta and devil ray gill plates, and other products from endangered or overfished shark and ray species.

Fast Facts

  • Sharks, rays, and chimaeras comprise one of only two classes of living fishes (the Chondrichthyes).
  • The chondrichthyan fishes have persisted on Earth for at least 400 million years.
  • Manta rays reach maturity at 8-10 years of age and give birth to a single pup every 1-3 years.
  • Spiny dogfish have a gestation period that is as long as that of the African elephant.
  • Porbeagle sharks can live up to 65 years, do not produce offspring until 13-18 years of age, and have just four pups per litter, on average.
  • Of the 1,041 known species of chondrichthyan fishes, 24% are estimated to be threatened with extinction.
  • In March 2013, the following species were listed on CITES Appendix II: oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), great hammerhead shark (S. mokarran), smooth hammerhead shark (S. zygaena), porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus), and manta rays (Manta spp.) They joined the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which were added to Appendix II in February 2003. All species of sawfish are included in CITES Appendix I.
  • WCS-supported research estimates that 26 to 73 million sharks are killed annually for the shark fin soup trade.
  • Giant manta and reef manta rays are killed for their gill rakers, which are used to make an Asian “health tonic.”

Challenges

Sharks and rays are targeted in commercial and recreational fisheries and taken as bycatch in fisheries targeting other species like tuna and swordfish. Although shark meat is an important source of protein in many coastal communities, the demand for shark fin soup drives the unsustainable exploitation of these species; the wasteful and inhumane practice of finning – cutting the fins off sharks and dumping them back into the ocean – leads to the killing of animals that might otherwise have been released back to the sea alive. Furthermore, sharks and rays cannot easily recover from overfishing; unlike most bony fishes that mature quickly and lay millions of eggs at a time, cartilaginous fishes mature quite slowly and bear relatively few young.

WCS Responds

WCS, with a coalition of partners, is working to leverage the legal obligations that the CITES listings require to advocate for legal, sustainable and transparent trade in shark and ray products. These efforts are part of a broader strategy to conserve sharks and rays that integrates field research, threat mitigation, the promotion of effective fisheries management and trade policies, capacity-building and public education. Broadly, our strategy will meet the following overarching conservation objectives:

  • Protect threatened shark and ray species
  • Improve shark and ray fisheries management
  • Improve control and monitoring of trade in shark and ray products
  • Reduce market demand, in particular for shark fins

WCS currently works in several major shark-fishing countries; our extensive network of field programs provides an opportunity to adapt and expand successful models for use in other geographies. Current and future shark and ray conservation efforts will target the Indo-Pacific, the Western Indian Ocean, the Eastern Tropical Atlantic and the NY Seascape.

Finally, at WCS’s New York Aquarium, we are building strategic educational and outreach initiatives to help create a new constituency in support of shark and ray conservation. The aquarium’s forthcoming “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit will celebrate the oceans and marine life, educate future conservationists and advance WCS efforts to protect seascapes across the globe.

From the Newsroom

Traffickers of Mantas and Devil Rays Get Bitten in BustsDecember 1, 2014

On LiveScience, Stuart Campbell, Prayekti Ningtias, and Erika Reuter write of the rise in arrests of manta ray traders, illustrating Indonesia's commitment to intercept and prosecute illegal trade in marine products. The busts may be resonating, too, as the price of manta products like these has declined, possibly due to falling demand from locals.

In Indonesia, a Major Arrest of Manta Ray Trader by Ministry of Marine Affairs and FisheriesSeptember 30, 2014

Indonesia, home to one of the largest known shark and ray fisheries on earth, arrested traders dealing in these animals. It was the country's first-ever action under a new, nationwide regulation to protect manta rays.

As Sharks Disappear, So Could Shark WeekAugust 15, 2014

Caleb McClennen, executive director for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Global Marine Program, explains the most important take away from Discovery Channel's Shark Week: sharks are an extraordinarily threatened species.

This "Shark Week," Consider a Vital Marine HabitatAugust 14, 2014

During "Shark Week" this year, says WCS Executive Vice President of Pubic Affairs John Calvelli, consider the serious threats to sharks and the vital New York seascape they rely on.

New Photo Depicts Brutality of Shark FinningJanuary 10, 2011

WCS researchers working on a New York Seascape study discover a female sand tiger shark, missing all its fins, swimming through Delaware Bay. The conservationists call the discovery a disturbing reminder about the ongoing threats to vulnerable shark populations around the world.

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