ENVIRONMENT: The state of Australia’s sharks and rays

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A grey nurse shark. Around 80 per cent of Australia's shark species are not threatene. Image: Patrick Linehan

THE Australian government’s National Environmental Science Program Marine Biodiversity Hub has completed the country’s first complete assessment of extinction risk for all Australian sharks, rays and ghost sharks (chimeras). Australia is home to over a quarter of the planet’s shark species.

The good news is that our sharks and their relatives are doing better in Australia than in the rest of the world. Of our 328 species, around 80 per cent are not threatened. We also serve as a refuge for 45 species that are threatened in other parts of the world, such as the giant guitarfish and the spotted eagle ray.

The not so good news is that 39 Australian species are assessed as having an elevated risk of extinction. Out of the total 182 shark species, 2 are critically endangered, 9 endangered and 11 vulnerable. For the 132 ray species, 3 are critically endangered, 5 endangered and 9 vulnerable. The extinction risks were determined using the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Categories and Criteria.

The results of the work have led to publication of The Action Plan for Australian Sharks and Rays 2021. Plan lead author Dr Peter Kyne from Charles Darwin University notes that while our risk is considerably lower than the global level of 37 per cent, the 39 species in trouble require urgent action. Dr Kyne commented “Around Australia, many of our threatened sharks and rays are not commercially important so these are ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but they require protection at national, state and territory levels.” Further, “There are positive signs that protection and management is working for some iconic species such as the white shark and the grey nurse shark, although our assessment shows these species remain threatened.”

The action plan is published in book form and Dr Kyne sees it as “a call for action to secure all Australian sharks, rays and ghost sharks for the future.” Hopefully we’re well past the era where rec fishers and charter operators targeted species such as grey nurse and white sharks just for the thrill of it. The late game fisherman Peter Goadby of “Big Fish and Blue Water” fame successfully lobbied the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) to have grey nurse dropped as a trophy species and the negative reception of the Stockton Beach back-of-the-ute white shark hunter videos a few years back seems to have stopped that particular practice, although a few guys still target bull sharks and shovel nose rays.

Of more concern is the way beach haulers and some recreational beach fishers still treat the smaller ray species. Whether it’s through fear of a sting from the barb or just plain contempt, too many get discarded on the sand, get stabbed to get a cheap hook back or are mutilated by having their tails chopped off. That really has got to stop.

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