A training on shark and ray identification was organized on February 11 at the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) Office to capacitate the enforcers and other technical staff of the PCSD and its partner agencies.
Debra Abercrombie, a marine biologist from Stony Brook University and Abercrombie & Fish, who has been studying sharks for more than 15 years, shared the tools she has helped develop for implementing the new Appendix II shark and ray listings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Abercrombie specifically trained the participants on how to identify shark fins for enforcement and trade monitoring.
She explained that knowing what fins look like will help enforcers visually check the fins in trade whether it belongs to a shark listed with the CITES rather than having them genetically tested. She added that one can differentiate sharks depending on the characteristics of the fins.
According to Abercrombie, there are nearly 500 species of sharks around the world, “with more and more being discovered each month, and taxonomy being worked out as we learn more about these animals.”
Its diversity, she said, is attributed to an “absolutely fascinating” 420 million years of evolution.
In the Philippines, over 200 species of sharks and rays (batoids)were listed in the Checklist of Philippine Chondrichthyes.
“It’s likely that there are still more to be discovered. In fact, in the last 5 years alone, at least four new species have been discovered,” said Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia and co-founder of Save Sharks Network Philippines (SSNP).
Meanwhile, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Cagayancillo, Palawan hosts at least 23 species of elasmobranchs, with one of the highest density globally of the reef associated sharks, said Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, executive director of Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Project Philippines.
LAMAVE, in collaboration with Global Fin Print (International Consortium of Scientific Organizations), conducted in 2016 a nationwide sharks and rays assessment, covering seven areas in the country including Tubbataha.
In fact, one can see 1.1 sharks per hour in Tubbataha compared to the 1 shark per more than 100 hours in Maldives, according to LAMAVE’s research. Ponzo said the area can even be used to repopulate sharks in the Philippines.
Protecting the surface waters from fishers, like the one being done in Tubbataha as a protected area, can help the sharks resurface again because most of them prefer the deep waters for isolation and to avoid external disturbances, according to Ponzo.
Like any other marine species, sharks suffer from different key threats, such as critical habitat loss, climate change, and – ultimately – overexploitation.
“Life history characteristics make sharks extremely vulnerable to overfishing (some species more than others) and [its] populations recover slowly once they become depleted,” Abercrombie said.
“Sharks are slow-growing, long-lived animals with low natural mortality. This means that it takes years before they decide to make babies. And when females do get pregnant, they produce very few offspring. As a result, they have a low capacity for population increase,” Cinches expounded.
Citing two scientific studies, Abercrombie said its results show that tens of millions of sharks are caught annually worldwide. “One of the major drivers of shark exploitation is the international trade in shark fins, which is one of the most valuable seafood commodities on the market.”
“It’s an extremely lucrative business worth $400-550 million USD/year.”
PRODUCTS IN TRADE
But why are sharks being harvested?
“Well, some products you find in trade are meat, which are largely consumed locally,” and, as mentioned earlier, fins which contain ceratotrichia or “fin needles” necessary to make a shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy commonly served in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and mainland China, she said.
Other shark products in trade are jaws, liver oil, dried salted meat, and skin and cartilage.
Sharks are largest predators in marine ecosystems; most of them are at the top of the food chain, and are the only predator for many species.
Because they are responsible in maintaining healthy ecosystems, its population decline leads to ecological imbalance, causing food webs to alter and its prey behavior to change “due to reduced fear of being eaten in areas where sharks have been fished out,’’ she explained.
Sharks are protected under several international and national laws and local policies, noted Cinches.
In Palawan, elasmobranch or cartilaginous fishes like sharks and rays are included in the PCSD Resolution No. 15-521, s. 2015, which approves the updated list of threatened terrestrial and marine wildlife in Palawan and their categories, pursuant to RA 9147 or the Wildlife Act.
The use of these threatened marine wildlife are regulated through permitting system, pursuant to PCSD Administrative Order No.12, which is also anchored on RA 9147, according to Levita Lagrada, Permitting Chief under the PCSD Staff ECAN Regulation and Enforcement Division.
Under the said PCSD Admin Order, permits are only given for breeding/propagation and research purposes, provided the applicants meet the requirements, such as management breeding plan and scientific expertise, among others.
PCSD, a recognized CITES management authority, do not give a CITES permit if a certain species being applied is listed in Appendix I of CITES, which bans international commercial trade for species threatened with extinction, unless it will be used for research purposes.
In other provinces like Bohol, Cebu, Batangas, Sorsogon, where the occurrence of sharks was recorded, they are protected either through local ordinances or executive order, which penalize those who exploit elasmobranch.
Meanwhile, SSNP, which is composed of different non-government organizations and civil society organizations focusing on marine conservation, is calling for a national policy to conserve and sustainably manage all shark and ray species.