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The Global Status of Sharks, Rays and Chimaeras

When the word ‘shark’ is mentioned most people immediately think of a hammerhead, great white or other fierce large predator. Few know that there are more than 1,000 species of sharks and their close relatives, rays and chimaeras. Fewer still understand that they pose very little danger to people, but instead play key roles in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems and human communities. And nearly everyone will be surprised to know that on average one new species of shark, ray or chimaera has been discovered or described every two or three weeks since the 1970s!   

Evaluating the status of the many populations that make up this remarkable and diverse group of fishes is a very difficult task that is accomplished primarily by the Shark Specialist Group (SSG) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)

The SSG includes 128 experts from 35 countries in the fields of shark biology, conservation, management, fisheries, taxonomy and other relevant skills. Its mission is to promote the sustainable use, wise management and conservation of all sharks, rays and chimaeras. In 2014, in collaboration with several hundred scientists lead by NK Dulvy, SL Fowler, JA Musick, RD Cavanagh, PM Kyne, LR Harrison, JK Carlson, LNK Davisdson, S Fordham, and MP Francis, the SSG published the first-ever assessment of the extinction risk and conservation status of all known sharks, rays and chimaeras---1,041 species.   

That work built on a 2005 status survey of sharks, rays and chimaeras, which is a highly recommended source of information on their classification, ecology and life history, importance to humans, threats and conservation management as of that date.

IUCN/SSC Shark Specialist Group

All of the information gathered by the SSG is provided as advice to national and international officials, regional fisheries management groups and businesses throughout the world to help them develop more effective policies and practices for sustainable use and conservation of these important animals.

Their work is desperately needed, because the 2014 report found that one-quarter of the species are threatened with extinction due to overfishing, both targeted and incidental; only one-third of species are considered safe; and five out of the seven most threatened families are rays.

This month’s featured stories as well as the two publications mentioned above highlight some of the ways that sharks and rays contribute to ocean health. After reading them, we hope you will gain new appreciation for these animals and why they deserve to be conserved.