Time is running out to save sharks and rays, with over a third of species pushed toward extinction by overfishing

Posted on
07 September 2021


The experts found that the number of threatened species has doubled since the last global study while the number of endangered and critically endangered species has more than tripled. Three species have been classified as “possibly extinct”, not having been recorded for 80 years on average. All threatened sharks and rays are being depleted by overfishing, with habitat loss and destruction and climate change compounding the risks, affecting 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 species respectively.

The Mediterranean continues to be one of the regions with the highest extinction risk for sharks and rays including coastal, deep sea, and in particular for pelagic species such as Mako shark. The study shows again how critical it is to put in place measures to improve fisheries management and effective marine protected areas to save critically endangered species such as Angel Sharks that together with guitarfish, hammerhead sharks, pelagic eagle ray and devil rays, all still present in the Mediterranean but are among the most threatened from extinction globally. 

Dr. Andy Cornish, leader of WWF’s global shark and ray conservation programme said: “The alarm bells could not be ringing louder for sharks and rays. We are on the cusp of starting to lose this ancient group of creatures, species by species right here, right now. Starting now, we need far greater action by governments to limit fishing and bring these functionally important animals back from the brink.”

While the governments in shark-catching countries and regional fisheries management bodies have largely moved in the right direction to address overfishing over the past decade, they typically fall short of implementing measures to directly control the amount of fishing, such as through catch limits. The end result – making sharks and rays the second most threatened vertebrate group on the planet – is alarming even if predictable, with too little happening too late.

Dr. Cornish added: “At the national level, fisheries and environmental authorities need to work together to stop overfishing and halt further declines. This is a pivotal moment in time. If we act now, we still have a good chance to save these predators that play such an important role in ocean health. However, if the status quo continues with slow incremental improvements in management, nobody should be surprised when shark and ray species start disappearing on our watch. This study is a huge wake up call! All countries and regional fisheries bodies that catch sharks and rays need to step up and take responsibility.”

The most endangered sharks and rays will need recovery plans that reduce mortality from fishing to as close to zero as possible.

For those species that can still sustain fishing, well-enforced science-based catch limits can prevent declines and even lead to recoveries. Where catch limits are not feasible, protecting critical habitats for sharks and rays and reducing incidental fishing mortality (e.g. through catch mitigation measures) can reduce overfishing.  

Sharks and rays play many key roles in the marine ecosystem. They do not simply live in the ocean – they shape it and have done so for millions of years. These animals are not only indispensable to ocean health, but also to the well-being of millions of people across the globe through food, livelihoods, and tourism opportunities they provide. Latest science highlights their role in carbon sequestration – a crucial buffer against climate change.

WWF works to conserve sharks and rays in over 25 countries and territories across the globe. Our fisheries management work aims to address overfishing through a variety of approaches, from assisting governments with National Plans of Action for Sharks, to advocating for improved conservation measures with the regional fisheries management organisations (see our call to action for oceanic sharks and rays), to assisting with effective marine protected areas for sharks and rays. Our work to ensure legal, traceable, and sustainable trade and reduce unsustainable consumption of shark and ray products aims to tackle the main drivers of overfishing.