Sharks and rays at extinction risk in the Mediterranean Sea

An international team of marine biologists published today a Letter entitled “Mediterranean sharks and rays need action” in the prestigious Science magazine. The article presents some food for thought for policy makers and the general public on a topical issue for the entire Mediterranean region: the fight against illegal unregulated and unreported fishing and the protection of sharks and rays at risk of extinction.

Social platforms have succeeded where political pressure and diplomacy had not yet managed to” says Prof. Marco Milazzo, professor of Ecology at the University of Palermo, and first author of the article. “The recent publication on social media of images and videos of protected sharks sold in chunks in the markets of Monastir and Kelibia in Tunisia, has led several local and international organizations to raise a formal protest against the Tunisian government. Fortunately, the answer was not long in coming, and pending a review of national legislation, a ban on fishing, landing and marketing of various sharks and rays species at high risk of extinction in the Mediterranean was promulgated”.

The recent measures taken by the Tunisian government could finally help to change the Mediterranean fisheries policy scenario, triggering a cascading effect on the lethargic action of other coastal countries, including many EU ones, which are among the main exporters and importers of shark meat globally. The actions, in accordance with the roadmap of the European Green Deal, must concern the effective fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, controls in ports and processing industries, and increase traceability and seafood security (sharks are sold as swordfish in various markets in Italy and Greece), but also the creation of international sanctuaries for the protection of sharks and rays at risk of extinction.

North African waters host elasmobranch aggregations and high diversity of species, many of which are at risk of extinction. Contrasting deliberate fishing of sharks and rays in these areas represents a crucial step for the effectiveness of conservation action“, says Dr. Carlo Cattano, researcher at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, National Institute of Marine Biology, Ecology and Biotechnologies in Sicily.

Sharks and rays that are listed as Endangered (EN) or Critically Endangered (CR) in the Mediterranean Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are landed in ports and marketed in Mediterranean countries. The rare guitarfish (Rhinobatos rhinobatos) (A) in Libya, the spiny butterfly ray (Gymnura altavela) (B) and mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) (C) in Greece.

According to the FAO official statistics, Tunisia has the largest North African fishing fleet, second only to Libya for shark fishing in the Mediterranean, and North African countries land 70% of Mediterranean elasmobranchs catches. However, these data are largely overlooked”, adds  Ioannis Giovos, researcher of iSea and the University of Patras in Greece.

The continuing political instability and armed conflict in some countries along with the recent pandemic have drastically shrunk the economy of North African countries, with tourism collapsing. “There is an evident increase in illegal fishing in these countries due to the higher demand for shark meat globally and subsistence fishing. All the above, set Mediterranean elasmobranchs in a greater risk of extinction than before and we must act before its too late” concludes Sara Al Mabruk, researcher at the Marine Biology in Libya society.

Milazzo M., Cattano C., Al Mabruk S.A.A., Giovos I. (2021) Mediterranean sharks and rays need action. Science, 371(6527), pp. 355-356. DOI: 10.1126/science.abg1943