The sharks facing extinction in Australia

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More than one-in-ten of Australia’s shark, ray and ghost shark species are at risk of extinction, with experts warning ‘urgent action’ is needed to stop severe population declines.

The new data comes from the first complete assessment of extinction risk, showing Australia is home to more than a quarter of the world’s shark species, 12 per cent of which are at risk.

‘While Australia’s risk is considerably lower than the global level of 37 per cent, it does raise concern for the 39 Australian species assessed as having an elevated risk of extinction,’ the study’s lead author Peter Kyne says.

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‘Around Australia, many of our threatened sharks and rays are not commercially important so these are largely ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but they require protection at national, state and territory levels.’

For iconic species such as the great white shark and grey nurse shark, Dr Kyne said there are ‘positive signs’ protection and management is working, although they remain threatened.

Commercial fishing that affects sharks both as a targeted species and bycatch for industries such as tuna remains a ‘major threat’ facing sharks around the world, Dr Kyne said. 

‘Each one of our species has a functional role … it’s part of that web of the ocean community,’ he said, explaining the importance of sharks as predators in a healthy ecosystem.

Published on Tuesday, the new Action Plan for Australian Sharks and Rays is the first attempt at a comprehensive national overview of sharks and their habitats.

‘It identifies priority at-risk species, those that need further protection and species of no immediate concern,’ Marine Biodiversity Hub Director Alan Jordan says.

The data indicates that a ‘strong focus on sustainable fisheries’ is having some benefit, as 80 per cent of the country’s 328 species are not threatened.

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‘In Australia, comprehensive fisheries management along with vast areas that are unfished or lightly fished and the marine protected area network have helped secure the status of many species,’ co-author Michelle Heupel said.

Australian waters also serve as a refuge or ‘lifeboat’ for 45 species that are threatened in other parts of the world such as the giant guitarfish and the spotted eagle ray.

‘These species remain secure in Australian waters,’ Dr Kyne said.

‘But while we should celebrate the secure status of many species, we urgently need to increase our research and management efforts for Australia’s threatened sharks and rays.’

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The research also found deficiencies in how much is known about local shark species, with more investment needed to bridge the knowledge gap.

‘For the 328 species that we assessed in this book, every single one has knowledge gaps,’ Dr Kyne said.

The Action Plan for Australian Sharks and Rays 2021 was published by the Australian government’s National Environmental Science Program Marine Biodiversity Hub.

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