Mediterranean Sharks, Rays Facing Oblivion, Study Says

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Endangered species include the giant devil ray (Mobula mobular), which is confined mainly to the Mediterranean.

Its large size and low reproduction rate—females can grow to 17 feet (5 meters) and give birth to only one pup per pregnancy—make the ray especially vulnerable to fishing pressure, the new report warns.

Great White Threat

The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) was also assessed as endangered in the Mediterranean, an increased threat category than its current global conservation status of vulnerable.

The study found evidence of a 50 to 60 percent drop in great white numbers in the Mediterranean region.

Overfishing and declines in important prey species such as bluefin tuna have likely contributed to the population collapse, the report says. Habitat degradation due to tourism and development in coastal areas overlapping the shark's habitat are also highlighted in the report.

The IUCN decision to raise the great white's conservation status "is absolutely the correct one," said Richard Pierce, director of the Shark Trust, a marine conservation nonprofit based in Plymouth, England.

Pierce was part of a team that in 2005 spent three months searching for great white sharks in the Adriatic Sea, a former Mediterranean stronghold of the species.

"We chummed [put out shark bait] around the clock at all depths, but we didn't see a sign of a great white," Pierce said. "In fact, we saw very little evidence of sharks in general. It was both terrifying and depressing."

While great white sightings were fairly regular in the Mediterranean during the second half of the last century, "they've have all but ceased completely in the last few years," he added.

Saving the Sharks

The key to conserving remaining shark populations is sustainable fisheries management—something Mediterranean countries have historically struggled to implement, Pierce added.

There are currently no catch limits for commercially fished shark and ray species in the sea, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group says. In addition, only a few species receive any protection as a result of conservation agreements.

A recent deepwater fishing ban below 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) and prohibitions on driftnets and shark finning—slicing off a shark's valuable fins and dumping the body at sea—should help conservation efforts, the group says.

But better enforcement measures are needed if threatened populations are to have the chance to recover, IUCN adds.

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