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Illegal fishing of sharks and rays caught on camera in the Mediterranean

All kinds of species of sharks and rays – some of them critically endangered – are regularly illegally caught by nets and longlines in the Mediterranean, as compelling reports obtained by WWF reveals.

Rome, Italy – All kinds of species of sharks and rays – some of them critically endangered – are regularly illegally caught by nets and longlines in the Mediterranean, as compelling reports obtained by WWF reveals. Because of such widespread illegality and a lack of adequate management and control, far too many are killed each year, causing enormous damage to marine ecosystems. Ahead of Shark Awareness Day (July 14), WWF calls on Mediterranean countries to take urgent action to increase information and awareness  among fishers, tighten controls and ensure proper reporting of shark and ray catches.

The M.E.C.O project, a Mediterranean initiative composed of local citizen scientists, shared with WWF dozens of social media photos and videos taken in the last few years in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco [1]. The citizen science evidence shows fishers illegally catching and landing protected species of sharks and rays, including angel sharks and white sharks which are at risk of extinction, and species like smooth hounds that have declined by 90% in the region but for which there is no proper official reporting. In some cases, threatened sharks ended up on local markets, fraudulently sold as swordfish or other more commercially valuable species.

Illegal landings of endangered giant devil rays were reported from Algeria, Libya, Turkey and Spain, while white, mako and smooth hammerhead sharks are ending up on markets in Morocco, Tunisia, Italy and France despite being critically endangered. Less known species but still critically endangered like the spiny butterfly ray are reported to be caught in Greece, Spain, Libya, and Turkey. Smoothhounds can be found on Croatia markets but official data in their catches are lacking.

“We knew that sharks and rays were illegally fished and landed in the Mediterranean.  These social media reports further confirm that it is widespread across the Mediterranean and impacts a wide range of species. It’s shocking to see laws protecting sharks and rays in the Mediterranean being continuously infringed with few if any consequences, while existing tools to improve fisheries management are still not being used effectively. The extinction of even one of these predators from our sea would be a tragic loss for the whole marine ecosystem,” said Simone Niedermueller, Regional Manager at WWF.

The Mediterranean is a biodiversity hotspot for sharks and rays, with more than 80 different species counted in its waters, but more than half of them are threatened and some face the real possibility of extinction [2]. Despite legislation [3] banning the landing of protected species of sharks and rays and restricting pressure on others, fishing is very weakly controlled and bans often go unenforced. Toothless regulations aimed at conserving vulnerable populations don’t go nearly far enough, are often not properly implemented at national level, and – as our evidence shows – those that are in place are routinely ignored in poorly managed markets all over the region.  As a result, threatened species of sharks and rays are illegally caught, while for others there is next to no reporting or management.

WWF is working across the Mediterranean with fishers and other stakeholders to improve awareness of threatened species [4] and to develop new strategies to avoid unwanted catches. At the same time we are advocating for governments to increase controls against illegal activities and to manage shark target fisheries in a more sustainable way. Critical habitats like nursery and feeding areas should also be protected against destructive activities. 

“As of today, no Mediterranean state has fully rolled out its national plan for the conservation, management and long-term sustainable use of sharks and rays. We cannot wait any longer,” concluded Niedermueller.

Read the full briefing here
More about: Sharks in crisis in the Mediterranean 

[1] WWF has received about 60 pieces of social media evidence of IUU fishing of sharks and rays in 11 Mediterranean countries. Over 40 cases are from 2019 and 2020.
[2] Serena F. 2005, “Field Identification Guide to the sharks and rays in the Mediterranean and Black Sea”, FAO, here.
[3] There are many binding and non- binding instruments in place to manage and conserve sharks and related species, at international, regional and national levels. See more information here. 
[4] Twenty Mediterranean species are classed as Critically Endangered, which means they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. For better information about the status of sharks and ray species in the Mediterranean according to the IUCN Red List, read here. 

Contact: Stefania Campogianni, Communications Manager, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, scampogianni@wwfmedpo.org, +39 346 3873237
The map of IUU fishing of sharks and rays in the Mediterranean
The map of IUU fishing of sharks and rays in the Mediterranean