The world’s waters are home to an estimated 1,250 species of sharks, skates and rays — one of the oldest and most diverse groups of animals on Earth. In their 400‐million-year evolutionary history, sharks and rays have developed extraordinary adaptations: bioluminescence, pockets, saws, hammers, stings, and electricity. This incredible biodiversity is reflected in the variety of fisheries that have proliferated in response to demand for a variety of shark and ray products: fins, meat, liver oil, cartilage, leather, and manta and devil ray gill plates. But these remarkable animals are also highly vulnerable to overexploitation and, in some cases, totally unsuitable for commercial fishing, because they are long-lived, slow to reach reproductive age, and produce few young.
Today, many shark and ray species are being pushed to the brink of extinction. The key drivers of this global crisis are unsustainable direct and indirect fishing, increasing national and international demand for shark products, and poorly controlled trade. Shark and ray conservation and management has not been able to keep pace with these market drivers. Instead, we are faced with an array of poorly managed and unregulated fisheries connected through global and local marketplaces across at least 126 countries.
The existence of this vast and largely unregulated marine wildlife trade has allowed entrepreneurs to create demand for the gills of manta and devil rays — 99% of the trade passes through the trade hub of Guangzhou in southern China. Fortunately, as a result of action by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), international trade in gills is now officially regulated — but these regulations need to be fully enforced.
The combination of rapidly expanding fisheries, increasingly diversified local and international markets, inadequate management and regulatory mechanisms, and poorly controlled trade is contributing to an ongoing dramatic decline in shark and ray populations worldwide. Some shark and ray populations have dropped by an alarming 90%. The drivers of the global shark and ray crisis need to be tackled before it is too late.