Nearly one-third of shark species are classified as endangered and vulnerable to extinction by the world authority on such matters, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The situation is very serious. Scientists have found that large predatory fish, including sharks, have declined by 90 per cent globally. Contrary to their fearsome reputation, sharks are a vulnerable group of animals. As they are top order predators they are not used to being preyed upon themselves and have not evolved the ability to reproduce their numbers quickly. When they are preyed upon in commercial fisheries their populations collapse, and this has happened all around the world. Yet demand for shark fin is increasing. Shark fin soup is a celebrated part of Chinese cuisine and increasing affluence in China has an inadvertent downside for the world’s sharks.
New South Wales has a shark fishery which supplies the domestic and Asian market. It is a component of the New South Wales Ocean Trap and Line Fishery [OTLF]. New South Wales has prohibited the horrific practice of slicing off a shark’s fin and chucking its body back in the sea while it is still alive. However, it does not stop sharks from being killed in large numbers; their bodies just have to be brought back to port along with their fins. The Ocean Trap and Line Fishery is allowed to catch 126.5 tonne of sharks, inclusive of a 110 tonne catch limit on whaler, blue, hammerhead, mako and tiger shark species. From the average weight of these sharks calculated from observer data, it is estimated 110 tonne to be an allowable catch of approximately 4,300 sharks. That is a lot of sharks. The allowable catch is divided between a general fishery of 85.9 tonne and a targeted shark fishery of 40.6 tonne.
The sustainability of this level of catch is not standing up to scrutiny from marine scientists. It is also under scrutiny from the Federal environment Minister under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The Federal environment Minister has allowed the fishery to continue exporting but not without concern. A review of the fishery by CSIRO, commissioned by the Federal Minister, said:
What was immediately apparent in undertaking this review was the lack of knowledge of the status of populations that sustain the shark component of [the] OTLF…
Without basic knowledge of the different shark species’ populations, and the mortality rates they each can or cannot withstand, how can it be claimed that the mortality rate for each shark species is sustainable? This is not responsible fisheries management. Just this week the scalloped hammerhead and greater hammerhead were formally listed as threatened species under the New South Wales Fisheries Management Act 1994 because the evidence is in that their populations have declined significantly. This means scalloped and greater hammerheads can no longer be deliberately targeted. However, their continued catch remains inevitable while the Ocean Trap and Line Fishery is allowed to continue catching other sharks. The fishing gear cannot selectively avoid them.
The Federal environment Minister has demanded annual reviews of the sustainability of the Ocean Trap and Line Fishery shark catch. I obtained a copy of the first review through a freedom of information request. It makes for interesting reading. Last year shark catches were much lower than the allowable catch. Between 1 February 2011 and 31 January 2012 the actual catch in the general fishery was only 41.2 tonne of the allowable 85.9 tonne, which is less than half. The report admits that for at least one species, the sandbar shark, this may be due to a local depletion in numbers. The report says the four shark fishing permits offered to catch the 40.6 tonne were not taken up by the industry. The reasons are not clear but it is at least a reprieve for the sharks.
The Federal Minister is requiring new management measures in response to the annual review to be in place by 30 June this year. In the report the Department of Industry and Investment proposes a continuation of the current management arrangements. This is despite nothing I can see in the report that would reassure the Federal environment Minister of the fishery’s sustainability. I am interested to know what the Department of Industry and Investment plans to do to prevent the capture of the newly protected hammerhead species.
With shark catches down, fishers not taking up permits and species being listed as threatened, it would seem now is a sensible time to phase-out commercial shark fishing in New South Wales. The Greens support a phase-out of targeted commercial shark fishing unless it can be demonstrated to be sustainable for each species, and at the moment it cannot be. The Bahamas, Honduras, Maldives and Palau have moved to prohibit shark fishing in their waters. It is also time to start debating a prohibition on the possession and sale of shark fins in New South Wales. I would welcome a dialogue with the Chinese community to see what steps it may be willing to take. Several jurisdictions around the world—including the American States of California, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon—have enacted bans on the possession and sale of shark fins.
New South Wales used to celebrate world firsts in shark conservation. It was the first jurisdiction in the world to give a shark threatened species protection when it protected the grey nurse shark in 1984. But vested commercial and political interests, to whom the major parties and the Shooters and Fishers Party are beholden, do their best to keep us stuck in mid twentieth century attitudes. Today we know there are not plenty more fish in the sea, and certainly not sharks. We need to look after the sharks that remain. It is time to get serious about protecting our sharks in New South Wales waters.