Lecture: Sarah Fowler on the challenges & opportunities of shark conservation

Last week Tony and I attended a talk at the Kalk Bay Save Our Seas Shark Centre by Sarah Fowler. Sarah was introduced by Christoper Neff (back in town following the recent shark bite incident in Fish Hoek) and is one of those people who has had such a busy and productive working life that it’s almost futile to try and summarise her qualifications and experience… But she’s a co-author of the fantastic Sharks of the World field guide, founded the European Elasmobranch Society, is a founding trustee of the Shark Trust and has worked in advisory positions to government agencies as well as in an independent capacity as an environmental consultant. She is also the Vice-Chair of International Treaties at the Shark Specialist Group. There’s a better biography of her here – it’s incredibly impressive, and really comforting to know that there are individuals of this calibre involved with shark conservation internationally. Apart from Save Our Seas, our experience of shark conservationists locally has been somewhat dispiriting.

Challenges of shark conservation

Sharks are intrinsically vulnerable animals, perched as they are on the top of the food chain. They are late maturing, long-lived creatures that undergo long (9-18 months – can you imagine!) gestation periods and usually give birth to small litters of well-developed young. They thus have a low population growth rate, and a low resilience to onslaughts by fisheries. Many species of sharks return over and over to the same locations to breed, making them vulnerable to specific habitat threats. Shark populations are also slow to recover, in light of their reproductive characteristics described above.

There is a lack of management of shark fisheries – in many instances, sharks are not the target species but are often bycatch or a byproduct of what the fishery is actually trying to catch. Shark fisheries are low volume, and low value (but the trade in sharks and shark products is high value). From a management perspective, other fisheries have a higher priority to governments and in management treaties.

The IUCN Red List evaluates the global conservation status of plant and animal species. The Shark Specialist Group is responsible for preparing species assessments for elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) for the Red List. There are about 1,040 such species listed on the Red List, of which more than 17% are threatened. The most threatened species are

  • large bodied coastal species such as sawfish, hammerhead and porbeagle sharks, skates, and spiny dogfish
  • deep water benthic (bottom-dwelling) species targeted by fisheries or taken as bycatch
  • freshwater species
  • oceanic pelagics, which are an unregulated target of bycatch fisheries.

Funnily enough, the white shark is not a typical shark (nor is the whale shark). Both are actually fairly well protected, but they differ from the “average” shark in several other ways. The typical shark – if one were to average across all shark species – is small (about 1 metre long), flat (batoid), with uncertain distrubition, unknown population trends, and largely unknown life history. It is probably endemic to a particular region, making it vulnerable to habitat loss. It is utilised bycatch if not actually targeted by fisheries (in other words, if they’re caught by accident, they are used rather than thrown back into the sea). Its fisheries are unregulated and unrecognised. There is no fisheries management or biodiversity conservation attention being paid to the average shark. The species is probably on the IUCN Redlist as critically endangered, or there is insufficient data on it.

What needs to be done

Urgent conservation and management actions are required. Fisheries management (quotas and Total Allowable Catch or TAC) at a regional and national level is required. Shark finning must be banned.

Since some shark species (such as great whites and bull sharks) are highly migratory and regularly cross international borders, countries must co-operate in the conservation of such species. The Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) is one means of cementing co-operation. The CMS Shark Memorandum of Understanding is intended to improve the conservation status of several species of sharks listed in the CMS appendices. South Africa signed this treaty in May 2011, and is one of seven African signatories out of a total of 16 countries.

Who should take action?

How we can take action?

These aren’t complicated, time-consuming or difficult things to do. Most of them require a keyboard and a word processing program, a pen and paper, or firing off an email.

  • follow codes of conduct for diving and angling
  • write to elected representatives and government ministers (and shadow ministers)
  • ask them to follow scientific advice (this is VITAL – scientists are the only ones with no financial or status-related interests in the game) for national fisheries management and biodiversity conservation measures
  • ask what your government is doing to implement international biodiversity conventions
  • get yourself photographed hanging onto a shark’s dorsal fin, while wearing a bikini

(Regarding that last point, if you’ve read my post on the proliferation of ridiculous “shark activists” and conservationists that seem to bedevil us, you’ll be well aware of my views of that sort of exploitative, self-promotional behaviour.) Sarah was extremely diplomatic when I asked her about the sheer number of organisations that claim to be saving sharks, and whether this represents an unneccesary division of labour. Perhaps better results could be achieved by one or two organisations that envelop all the others? In reply, Sarah said that there is a role for every kind of organisation, from pure scientific research groups to those who are in favour of more direct (not illegal) action. She wryly observed that some groups’ only role seems to be to make everyone else look good!

This was a fascinating talk from someone who has been actively involved in shark conservation for many years. It confirmed my long-held suspicions that shark conservation is not glamorous work, and anyone who claims that it is – or is constantly getting themselves photographed with no other outputs in evidence – is not doing what they’re claiming to be doing.

Here’s a video of Sarah Fowler discussing a similar subject (at an event covered here).


I actually don’t know too well what the status of South Africa’s shark conservation action plan is (if there is one), and will do my best to find out and report back when I do.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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