During a summit among the member nations of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in Ecuador that ended on July 3, measures have been taken to increase the protected status of eastern Pacific devil and manta rays. Unfortunately though, another type of elasmobranch in dire need of protection — sharks — didn’t garner the same status.
The EU, with support from the U.S., Ecuador, and a number of other nations, had called for increased protection along the Pacific coasts for both rays and several species of shark living in the region. All of these are fished for domestic consumption as well as for export; among the fishing practices that were sought banned was shark finning, the practice of slicing off a shark’s dorsal fin on the boat and throwing the mortally wounded animal overboard to die.
So far, all regional regulations on the capture of both rays and sharks have been entirely voluntary and recommendation-based, but with the recent decision by the IATTC, at least some protection will now be mandated, including a ban on catching manta and devil rays, and a requirement that fishermen release them if they are accidentally caught as bycatch. There were concerns from Guatemala, where a number of small, and quite impoverished, communities depend on catching rays for food. Because of this, the IATTC wrote an exemption into the decision that allows for small-scale catching of rays by communities in developing countries, and for domestic consumption only. While proponents of any environmental or conservationist regulation never welcome potential loopholes, the new initiative is still a major win in protecting rays, as it illegalizes large-scale commercial ray fishing, which primarily caters to the Asian market.
That was the good news. The bad news was that it proved impossible to reach an agreement on regulation of shark fishing. Shark finning, as already mentioned, is one of the problems in the region, as is fishing for hammerhead and silky sharks. A ban on at-sea removal of fins was proposed by a number of nations, but was ultimately blocked by Japan and China. A number of environmental organizations, including Project AWARE and The Humane Society International, expressed disappointment and frustration that the rules on shark fishing weren’t tightened. The summit also failed to reach an agreement on increased protection for the bluefin tuna, a severely overfished species. The organizations are calling to governments to lead by example and institute regulations of their own for lack of international regulations.
The IATTC manages conservation regulations, particularly for tuna, but for other species as well. Its members are Belize, Canada, China, Taipei, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, the EU, France, Guatemala, Japan, Kiribati, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the U.S., Vanuatu and Venezuela.