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Mediterranean most dangerous place for elasmobranchs

There is no sign of improvement in the status of Mediterranean chondrichthyans (sharks, rays and chimaeras) more than a decade since they were first assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. There were no genuine improvements in status for the 73 species, whereas the status of 11 species worsened by at least one Red List Category. The principal driver of decline and local extinction in the Mediterranean is overfishing. Most species are taken as retained valuable bycatch in small-scale and large-scale trawl and net multispecies fisheries. But what does this mean in practice? Peter Verhoog and Georgina Wiersma of the Dutch Shark Society visited Malta’s consumers fish market and the wholesale fish market. They had the privilege of being shown around by Greg Nowell, founder of Sharklab-Malta, Pamela Mason and her husband, volunteers, and Lydia Koehler, marine biologist.

A member of the team visits the commercial fish auction most nights of the week, and the large weekly fish market in Marsaxlokk. These are places where most sharks and rays are encountered, as all caught fish must be sold through the main market in Valletta.

Baby longnose spurdog, (Squalus blainville) on market

A regular sight: Baby longnose spurdog, (Squalus blainville). When caught, sharks are so stressed they pup prematurely. This shark was too little and too late to make it to the ocean.

The modern, new wholesale fish auction offers many benefits for buyers and sellers, but also some disadvantages when shark and ray research is concerned. As the processing of catch in the modern market is not allowed any more, large sharks do not reach the market and cannot be recorded. This creates a large data gap in the research of Sharklab-Malta, who have been recording  large sharks for nearly a decade now. Most ‘small’ buyers do not want to buy a whole large shark, so larger specimens are sold directly to wholesalers who then sell the meat to small sellers. The species are now only ‘visible’ as steaks on the market, and most of the time, the name of the species is not even mentioned, especially for the illegally landed Critically Endangered shortfin mako, for which only the price is mentioned: We saw shortfin mako steaks labelled as ‘Plamtu’, which is Atlantic bonito. Most of the time, all sharks are called ‘Mazzola’ (dogfish), and all rays ‘Hamiema’ (dove of the sea. Sometimes, the sign just says ‘For soup’. Day after day, countless sharks are landed in Malta. Some days, over 600 sharks are no exception, which is incredible for such a small island…

Malta has a long history of eating many different species of elasmobranchs and although you won’t find ‘shark steaks’ in the local restaurants, you will find many species on sale on the fish vans almost daily. The consumption of shark, skate and rays in Malta is common place, especially with the older generations, and using their purchases they make a wide variety of different dishes.

 

The danger of mislabeling

Another important issue is the fact, that most sharks are mislabelled. When the catch from a fisherman is unloaded, each plastic crate gets a label and a barcode. For each landed species, there is a dedicated button with an image, so in theory, labelling would be super simple. But the longnose spurdog (Squalus blainvillei) is almost always labelled as Squalus acanthias, as this is the first ‘Squalus’ button. This species has however not been landed here since 2000. And this is the problem with most species: both Mustelus species (smooth-hounds) and Scyliorhinus (cat sharks). A pallet with several Mustelus species is just labelled as ‘Mustelus asterias’, but includes Mustelus mustelus and Mustelus punctulatus.

To establish quota and protective regulations and population assessments, reliable catch data are badly needed. According to the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, stock assessments are underway, however assessments are not management measures, but essential precursors to set catch limits for those more productive species that could be brought into sustainability. But how can these be viable when there is no proper catch recording?

Unfortunately this situation is not unique in the central Mediterranean. Expert Eleonora de Sabata of Medsharks has seen the same practices in Italy, though the number of sharks and ray landed in Italy is much lower.

The work of SharkLab Malta

Besides monitoring catches, Sharklab-Malta has developed educational posters for commercial fishes for species identification, to show which species are endangered and cannot be landed. The team is now working hard to prevent the shortfin mako from being imported and sold.

Another project of the organisation is the “Oviparous species Recovery and Release Program”, the recovery of fertilised eggs from their mothers landed by fishermen at the main Maltese wholesale fish market. In the past, these eggs were simply thrown into the waste bins, but now they have a chance to survive and with public support, Sharklab-Malta aim to support their development and release them back to where they belong. All hatched sharks pups of the two oviparous (egg-laying) species which can be adopted are Smaller spotted Catsharks (Scyliorhinus canicula) and Nursehounds (Scyliorhinus stellaris) (read more at: http://www.sharklab-malta.org/index.php/supporters-and-links). The eggs are kept in the Malta National Aquarium, one of the supporters of Sharklab-Malta.
During the winter months, often large numbers of catsharks are brought in, and the team checks out each shark by carefully examining the abdominal area. When an egg is found, it is retrieved and taken to a controlled aquarium, prior to being relocated at the Malta National Aquarium.

Sharklab-Malta has its own small refrigerated unit at the wholesale fish market for sample storage, and also organizes training sessions focussing on the correct identification of commonly landed species with government fisheries officials. The team is also collecting samples of shark species for future (genetic) research.


How serious is the situation?

At least half of the rays (50%, 16 of 32 species) in the Mediterranean Sea face an elevated risk of extinction, as well as 56% of sharks (23 of 41), whereas the only chimaera species (Chimaera monstrosa) is considered Least Concern in these waters. Of a total 27 chondrichthyan Families occurring in the Mediterranean Sea, 74% (20 families, 39 species) have at least one species listed as threatened, 52% (14 Families, 24 species) of which have all species listed as threatened. Examples of Families with all species threatened are the thresher sharks (family Alopiidae), the angel sharks (Squatinidae), and the Guitarfishes (Rhinobatidae). Of the remaining 45% of species in the region, 13 are Data Deficient (one of which is endemic to the Mediterranean Sea), nine Near Threatened, and 12 Least Concern. When the Mediterranean Sea Chondrichthyans were first assessed2 18 species were considered DD, only seven of which are still DD, representing significant knowledge improvement between assessments. Source: http://www.iucnssg.org/uploads/5/4/1/2/54120303/iucn_med_red_list_sharks_2016_amended.pdf

About Sharklab Malta

Sharklab Malta is a registered NGO in Malta and is a non-profit voluntary organisation dedicated to research, education and raising greater awareness about all Elasmobranch (Sharks, Rays, Skates and Chimaeras) around Malta and within the Mediterranean. Sharklab-Malta is run by volunteers. Sharklab-Malta has just recently become the 11th member of the European Elasmobranch Association.
More info: Sharklabmalta.org.

<h4>SPECIES REGULARLY LANDED IN MALTA AND THEIR STATUS ON THE IUCN RED LIST </h4>

  • Heptranchias perlo, Data Deficient, Sharpnose Sevengill Shark
  • Hexanchus griseu, Least Concern, Bluntnose Sixgill Shark
  • Mustelus asterias, Vulnerable A2bd, Starry Smoothhound
  • Mustelus mustelus, Vulnerable, Common Smoothhound
  • Mustelus punctulatus. Vulnerable, Blackspotted Smoothhound
  • Scyliorhinus canicular, Least Concern, Small Spotted Catshark
  • Scyliorhinus stellaris, Near Threatened, Nursehound
  • Squalus blainville, Data Deficient, Longnose Spurdog
  • Isurus oxyrinchus, Critically Endangered, Shortfin Mako is imported from Spain

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