The rapid expansion of human activities threatens ocean-wide biodiversity. Numerous marine animal populations have declined, yet it remains unclear whether these trends are symptomatic of a chronic accumulation of global marine extinction risk. We present the first systematic analysis of threat for a globally distributed lineage of 1,041 chondrichthyan fishes—sharks, rays, and chimaeras. We estimate that one-quarter are threatened according to IUCN Red List criteria due to overfishing (targeted and incidental). Large-bodied, shallow-water species are at greatest risk and five out of the seven most threatened families are rays. Overall chondrichthyan extinction risk is substantially higher than for most other vertebrates, and only one-third of species are considered safe. Population depletion has occurred throughout the world’s ice-free waters, but is particularly prevalent in the Indo-Pacific Biodiversity Triangle and Mediterranean Sea. Improved management of fisheries and trade is urgently needed to avoid extinctions and promote population recovery.
Ocean ecosystems are under pressure from overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction and pollution. These pressures have led to documented declines of some fishes in some places, such as those living in coral reefs and on the high seas. However, it is not clear whether these population declines are isolated one-off examples or, instead, if they are sufficiently widespread to risk the extinction of large numbers of species.
Most fishes have a skeleton that is made of bone, but sharks and rays have a skeleton that is made of cartilage. A total of 1,041 species has such a skeleton and they are collectively known as the Chondrichthyes. To find out how well these fish are faring, Dulvy et al. worked with more than 300 scientists around the world to assess the conservation status of all 1,041 species.
Based on this, Dulvy et al. estimate that one in four of these species are threatened with extinction, mainly as a result of overfishing. Moreover, just 389 species (37.4% of the total) are considered to be safe, which is the lowest fraction of safe species among all vertebrate groups studied to date.
The largest sharks and rays are in the most peril, especially those living in shallow waters that are accessible to fisheries. A particular problem is the ‘fin trade’: the fins of sharks and shark-like rays are a delicacy in some Asian countries, and more than half of the chondrichthyans that enter the fin trade are under threat. Whether targeted or caught by boats fishing for other species, sharks and rays are used to supply a market that is largely unmonitored and unregulated. Habitat degradation and loss also pose considerable threats, particularly for freshwater sharks and rays.
Dulvy et al. identified three main hotspots where the biodiversity of sharks and rays was particularly seriously threatened—the Indo-Pacific Biodiversity Triangle, Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea—and argue that national and international action is needed to protect them from overfishing.