The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has found that two in five organisms are threatened with extinction.

Large marine animals top the extinction risk categories . From sharks to rays, wrasses and whales, the picture painted by this year’s Red List is far from encouraging for the ocean’s heftier inhabitants.

“The findings underline the plight of many species throughout the world’s seas and
oceans, from the Mediterranean to Chinese coasts. Animals that are part of our heritage and have been around since the age of the dinosaurs are now going down the drain,” warns Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of the IUCN Global Marine Programme.

Sharks and rays are among the first marine groups to be systematically assessed, and of the 547 species listed, 20% are threatened with extinction. This confirms suspicions that these mainly slow-growing species are exceptionally susceptible to over-fishing and are disappearing at an unprecedented rate across the globe.

The Angel shark (Squatina squatina), previously assessed as Vulnerable, has jumped up two categories and is now classed as Critically Endangered, the top threat category. Many of its peers are following the same path. For example, the gulper shark (Centrophorus granulosus) has declined by 80-95% in its main range within the Northeast Atlantic whilst the Australian endemic Harrison’s dogfish (Centrophorus harrissoni) has undergone an even more dramatic decline of over 99% in two decades, fuelled by demand from the fisheries and cosmetics industries.

Sharks, like other large marine species which have naturally slow reproduction and repopulation rates, suffer mostly from overfishing, as well as being killed as bycatch. “As human beings, we can only point the finger at ourselves,” notes Sarah Fowler, Co-Chair of the Shark Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), “We are the ones driving amazing creatures to extinction.”

“Marine species are proving to be just as much at risk of extinction as their land-based counterparts: the desperate situation of many sharks and rays is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor of the IUCN Red List Unit. “It is critical that urgent action to greatly improve management practices and implement conservation measures, such as agreed non-fishing areas, enforced mesh-size regulations and international catch limits, is taken before it is too late.”

Other large creatures such as the Humphead wrasse, the Giant Yellow croaker or the Goliath grouper already benefit from the protection of international treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), yet are showing little improvement.

The Humphead wrasse, Napoleon or Maori wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), a mammoth among coral reef fishes, occurred extensively throughout much of the Indo-Pacific region. Because it is widely threatened, especially by the international live food-fish trade which exerts a high demand for its “plate-sized” juveniles, it is declining in much of its geographic range. Although it is listed as Endangered, uplisted from Vulnerable in 2004, on the IUCN Red List and on Appendix II of CITES, which restricts international
trade in this species, some countries have taken one step further to avert its disappearance from the wild.

Indonesia, its major exporting country, has sharply reduced the export quota to an interim measure of 8,000 fish per year, whilst Hong Kong plans to introduce legislation even more restrictive than that of CITES. Workshops and information campaigns in South-East Asia are also helping to raise public awareness about this species.

“In a dedicated effort to save this wrasse, IUCN, through its Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group, is working with the Indonesian and Hong Kong Governments to ensure the best knowledge and expertise is available to give the species a hand,” says Dr Yvonne Sadovy, Associate Professor at Hong Kong University and Chair of the IUCN SSC Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group.

Notwithstanding the daunting statistics unveiled in this year’s IUCN Red List, there is light at the end of the tunnel for some endangered species. The Goliath grouper, which is the largest of all coral reef fishes attaining some two meters in length, entered the IUCN Red List as Endangered in 1996. While it is still in the same category today, encouraging signs of recovery have been reported in southeastern USA, with juvenile densities relatively high in key mangrove areas. This trend is attributed to the availability of good quality habitat and to the effects of a fishing moratorium introduced by the USA in 1990.

“Although the situation is dramatic for many species in most of the world’s waters, there is definitely a ray of hope,” underlined Lundin, “the Goliath grouper shows that progress can be made, no matter how bleak the outlook, so the time to act is now before we lose the marine life that sustains our planet and ourselves.”

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