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Sonja Fordham is the founder and president of Shark Advocates International, a project of The Ocean Foundation and has been a leader in shark conservation for nearly two decades. The mission of this organization is to provide leadership in advancing sound, science-based local, national, and international conservation policies through collaboration with a diverse array of organizations and decision makers. Some of the major shark conservation projects she has worked on include the first US Atlantic shark management plan and finning ban ( 1993), European Community Plan of Action for the Conservation of Sharks (2009) and the first international finning bans, Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Oceans (2004, 2005.She also serves as Deputy Chair for the Shark Specialist Group of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and Chair of the Conservation Committee for the American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s foremost association of shark scientists.
Shark Week is always busy, but this year it also marks the opening of comment periods for better protection of smooth and spiny dogfish, a campaign Sonja and Shark Advocates have been lobbying for. We are excited to share Sonja’s shark story with you and about our collaborations with Shark Advocates to get better education about and protection for smaller and less charismatic species of shark.
Great white sharks get a lot of attention on a global scale, but in reality there are a lot of other species that could use the attention. What are some of the main species you are trying to draw attention to at the moment and why?
Shark conservation has come a long way over the last two decades, and it’s not surprising that the first species to be protected were the ones people found most fascinating, like white, basking, and whale sharks. These days I spend a lot of time trying to spread the love to lesser known, more heavily fished species, including mako sharks and dogfishes, as well as closely related skates and rays. Smoothhounds are of particular concern at the moment, because – unlike most sharks fished in the US – there are no assessments of population health and no limits on catches. Globally, rays are more threatened and much less protected than sharks; they’re in urgent need of attention and yet in most places, not even on the radar.
Your career has been devoted to sharks and saving them, why sharks?
Throughout my schooling, I planned for a career saving whales, and that’s what I intended to do when I took my first job at the Center for Marine Conservation. Back then, in the early 1990s, there were no controls on shark fishing or finning (slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea) in the US. At the same time, whales and dolphins were already strictly protected and the subject of almost all the fan mail we got from members. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that – although I still feel for marine mammals — the sharks were in greater need of an advocate.
What is your favorite species of shark and why?
It’s just too hard to pick one favorite! I like so many species of sharks – and rays — for different reasons. I admit I love basking sharks, even though that’s not very original. They’re enormous and mysterious, and rather odd-looking. Sawfish have a special place in my heart because they are bizarrely amazing creatures and also the most endangered of the “shark” group. Of course, I’m quite fond of the “underdogs” of the shark world: smoothhounds and spiny dogfish, as well as those happy-faced cownose rays. I love guitarfishes; who wouldn’t? I like puffadder shysharks because they are quite beautiful … and because their name is fun to say.
What is one species of shark you would like to see in the wild?
Great question! I’m happy to report that I’ve already seen the “big three” –white, basking, and whale sharks — in the wild. Thanks to some terrific scientist friends, I’m also one of a very small number of people fortunate enough to have seen three of the world’s five sawfish species in their natural habitat – in Florida and Australia’s Northern Territory. That’s a pretty good record for a policy person, but if I could choose the next encounter, it would be with a thresher shark. I know of just one special place in the Philippines where divers see these wildly impressive sharks before they head off for the deep water where they spend most of their time.
What are 3 things every person can do to help save sharks?
Be a good citizen: Ask questions. Try to buy only sustainable products. Be gentle with animals and their habitats. Obey the law. Don’t pollute. Educate others.
Speak up: There are countless ways to make a difference for sharks by engaging in the public policy process. Pick a species in trouble and a level of government. Do some homework. You can act locally or write to the Secretary of Commerce, testify at a hearing or write a short email. Truth is, even though more and more people seem to love sharks, lawmakers still rarely receive original pleas for shark protections from concerned citizens. You can make a difference.
Support a cause: Shark conservation groups are springing up like never before. Many operate on tight budgets with few staff. Find one you like and do something to help them: volunteer some time, make a donation, organize a letter-writing campaign or fundraiser, tweet them some encouragement, or just tell others to check them out.
Have shark protection regulations been effective in rebuilding populations?
Sharks and rays face differing threats around the world. In the US, we are just starting to see solid evidence of population recovery, years after fishing limits were enacted. There are new reports that the status of great white sharks is improving off both coasts, thanks to measures adopted decades ago. Populations of spiny dogfish and blacktip sharks have been rebuilt by limiting rather than banning catches. Still, similar protections have not been effective for recovering other species, like dusky sharks and thorny skates, at least partly because they continue to be killed in fisheries targeting other species. We’re working on additional safeguards for them.
Many other countries lack the resources to effectively restrict fishing and track progress like the US can. These countries may need to rely on more basic measures to conserve sharks, at least while programs are developed.
One basic shark conservation step that can be taken without population assessments is to ban finning. More and more countries and international fisheries bodies are adopting such bans, which at least cut down on waste if not overfishing.
We know that the 2000 US national finning ban saved tens of thousands of Pacific blue sharks per year, but overall it’s hard to measure how effective finning bans are because much of the world’s fishing is unmonitored. It’s clear that the only way to be sure that sharks have not been finned is to require fishermen to bring them to port with their fins still attached. This is also helpful for tracking the amount of particular shark species being fished, because it is easier to tell what species a shark is if it still has its fins. In the US, these strong rules are in place for all shark species, except smooth and spiny dogfish landed in some Atlantic states — like Maryland and North Carolina. We need fins-attached rules applied in all US fisheries to set a good example for other countries as they consider their own finning bans.
Efforts to end finning are of course complemented by the growing number of initiatives around the world to reduce demand for shark fin soup, but we can’t stop there. Finning and fin bans alone will not save sharks and do little to help exceptionally threatened rays. Shark fin issues for now may be the easiest to tackle, but efforts to limit shark and ray catches, and control demand for meat and other parts, are also essential for creating a brighter future for these vulnerable animals.