Unknown, unloved and in strife – Aussie battler sharks and rays fished to brink of extinction

Shark and ray species unique to Australian waters are in danger of extinction from commercial fishing unless fishing practices and rules are improved, a new independent report commissioned by the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) and Humane Society International (HSI) has found.

Half of Australia’s 322 species of shark and ray are found nowhere else in the world (which is known as ‘endemic’), and yet these true-blue Aussie battlers are in serious trouble. Species such as the Critically Endangered whitefin swellshark and the Vulnerable eastern angelshark are still declining[1].

The report provides solutions to save these sharks and rays including listing species like whitefin swellshark as ‘no take’ species, retaining existing fishery closures to help with recovery of species, and training fishers in species identification and safe-handling practices to help with survival rates of released animals.

AMCS and HSI said the report also highlights the urgent need for the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act to be strengthened to help Critically Endangered species like the whitefin swellshark to recover and thrive in Australian waters once more. This endemic species – and others – are not covered by the EPBC Act and can still technically be harvested.

AMCS shark scientist Dr Leonardo Guida said it would be a tragedy to lose these fascinating species before we even get to know them.

“As much as a koala is unique to Australia, so too are half of our sharks and rays. The whitefin swellshark is one of my favourites – when it feels threatened, it’ll swallow water to literally swell up and make itself appear bigger,” said Dr Guida.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking when you realise that a minimum average of 1,300 of these quirky whitefins are harvested each year for consumption[2].

“Most of our endemic sharks and rays live in the deep waters on continental shelves and slopes, some as far down as 1300m. Trawlers are one of their major threats, and our deep sea dwellers are silently suffering the brunt of it.

“Many Australians don’t know about these unique characters and unless there are changes, we could lose them before we even get to know them.”

South-eastern Australian waters (spanning from southernmost Queensland, through New South Wales and into eastern Victorian waters) are recognised as an extinction-risk hotspot for the most threatened endemic sharks and rays[3][4].

The report by Dr Ross Daley and Professor Charles Gray, highlights critical problems that need to be addressed in different fisheries in that region, including trawlers having inadequate or an absence of bycatch reduction devices such as ‘separator grids’ – a device allowing sharks and rays to ‘bounce off’ through an escape hatch in the trawl net.

The co-authors also highlight the incorrect and inaccurate reporting of shark and ray species caught.

Dr Daley said: “Our report shows that the whitefin swellshark needs urgent help. Making it a no-take species will go a long way to bolstering its recovery. They’re a tough and resilient species, if handled right, they’ve got a good survival rate when returned to the water.”

Professor Gray said: “Getting sharks and rays recorded correctly at the species level, rather than grouped under a generic term like ‘Unspecified stingray or stingaree’ is crucial because we can get a better sense of what’s being caught where and in what volumes. It’s critical if you want to have a sustainable fishery.”

HSI has nominated the whitefin swellshark, eastern angel shark, and grey skate, among other endemic species, for protection as threatened species under the EPBC Act. Decisions for some of the species are expected before October 2022.

HSI marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck said the report illustrated how important a stronger EPBC Act could be for the protection of Australia’s endemic species.

“Our uniquely Australian sharks and rays can be a source of national pride and we should have national environment laws that provide protection and mandated recovery plans for species such as these,” he said.

“It’s important to remember that if these Aussie sharks and rays go extinct, they are gone from the planet for good. The Federal Government must improve protection for species impacted by fishing and strengthen environmental laws immediately. If we can’t save our unique species, no one can.”

AMCS and HSI run a campaign to drive better protection for sharks and rays, encouraging Australians to become Shark Champions and create healthier oceans. Sign up to Shark Champions at www.sharkchampions.org.au.

The report is available to read here.

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