Sharks and Rays on the IUCN Red List

The IUCN Red List was established to track threatened species. Unfortunately, 28 sharks and rays appear on the list. Here’s the lowdown on 20 of them.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species was established in 1964. Today it is the world’s go-to source of information for the most comprehensive lists and facts on the status of animal, fungi and plant species. Twenty-eight sharks and rays have unfortunately made it to the ‘critically endangered’ section of this list. Below is a discussion on 20 of these species, with the exclusion of shark and ray species that have not been recorded in the past 30 to 40 decades or longer.

  1. Pondicherry shark

Pondicherry sharks are critically endangered and possibly extinct. They were last seen in 1979 and are only known due to specimens in museums. Scientist think that these sharks were native to China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Oman and Pakistan. The IUCN has suggested that surveys should be held in an attempt to locate the species. The largest threat to these sharks, if they still exist, are fishing and harvesting aquatic resources.

  1. Ganges shark

The main threats to the Ganges shark are residential and commercial development, fishing and harvesting aquatic resources, and natural-system modifications, such as dams and water management. Ganges sharks live around the Ganges and its tributary the Hooghly River in West Bengal, India and scientists think they may also live in Pakistan. Conservation sites have been put in place, as has a harvest-management plan. The Ganges sharks are protected in the Indian Wildlife Protection Act.

  1. Largetooth sawfish

The largetooth sawfish is concentrated mostly in four subpopulations scattered throughout the Eastern and Western Atlantic, Eastern and Indo-West Pacific. While a few may remain in the Amazon River basin, the Rio Colorado/Rio San Juan area in Nicaragua, and possibly some remote areas of French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana and Australia, scientists think they are extinct in all other areas where they previously lived.

Threats to this species include fishing and entanglement in nets and fishing gear and the decline of their natural breeding grounds like estuaries and mangroves. Trade in sawfish is banned under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and yet they are still caught and traded in some areas, especially for the use of their fins for shark fin soup and in the aquarium trade. Sawfish are protected in some areas of Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Brazil, Mexico and Australia.

  1. Hidden angelshark

Hidden angelsharks are found from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Buenos Aires Province, Argentina and possibly further south to the northern Patagonia-Argentine region. They generally live on the continental shelf between depths of 33 to 492 feet (10 to 150 m). In Brazil, this species has declined by 85 percent between 1988 and 2002, and in Argentina there was a 58 percent drop in the species between 1992 and 1998. Although catch and trade of hidden angelsharks has been banned in Brazil since 2004, it is still illegally done.

The main threats to these animals are bottom trawls and bottom-set gillnets. Hidden angelsharks are often caught as by-catch and females have been seen aborting embryos upon capture, reducing the reproductive capability of the species. Angelshark meat is popular and valuable in Brazil where imports of shark meat have increased eight times since 2000.

  1. Natal shyshark

The Natal shyshark is only known from three adult specimens located in less than 38 square miles (100 km²) around Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The Natal shyshark is usually found in rocky and coral reefs and sandy areas at depths between intertidal and 100 feet (30 m).

The main threat to the Natal shyshark is habitat degradation. The area is also experiencing high fishing pressure, especially prawn fishing. To date no conservation measures are in place for the Natal shyshark.

  1. Angelshark

The largest population of angelsharks is in the Canary Islands, with some individuals sighted

33 and 492 feet (10 to 150 m) deep

The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean has adopted a measure to ban retention, landings, tran-shipment, storage, display, and sale of angelsharks. Spain has listed them under ‘Special Protection,’ while Israel listed them under domestic regulations and Turkey has them on their Prohibited Species lists. They are also legally protected in the EU, and English and Welsh waters and included in the Angelshark Action Plan in the Canary Islands that focuses on protecting the species and its habitat.

  1. Whitefin swellshark

Whitefin swellsharks are mostly found around southeastern Australia, including Tasmania, on the outer continental shelf at depths between 413 and 1817 feet (126 to 554 m). Scientists think populations have declined by between 80 and 99 percent in the past three generations (around 45 years).

The main threat to whitefin swellsharks is intensive fishing in the area. About 10 percent of the catch in the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery is kept and likely sold for its meat. There are no specific conservation practices in place for whitefin swellsharks.

  1. Smalltooth sawfish

Numbers of smalltooth sawfish are very small, with encounters most often occurring in the Bahamas and between Georgia and Louisiana in the U.S. Rare sightings occur in Honduras, Belize, Cuba, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania. They generally live in water less than 3 feet (1 m) deep down to about 289 feet (88 m), and over 86 F (30 C).

The population size of smalltooth sawfish in the U.S. is around 5 percent of its size during the time of European settlement. It has recently stabilized and is expected to increase by 90 percent over the next 100 years.

The largest threats to smalltooth sawfish are entanglement in net gear, gillnets and trawl nets. While they are not purposefully caught, they do end up as bycatch, which leads to high mortality rates for the species. There is a possibility that smalltooth sawfish are targeted for their fins, especially in West Africa. Sawfish liver is often used to make liver oil and they are often caught for aquariums as well. Furthermore, habitat degradation poses a risk for the species.

Smalltooth Sawfish are protected in the United States, Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau.

  1. Green sawfish

Young green sawfish often live in shallow waters close to shore (and sometimes mangroves), while older individuals can inhabit water 230 feet (70 m) and deeper. Green sawfish are especially prevalent in Australian waters, but even there they have declined in population by about 80 percent in the last 45 years. They may also live in Bahrain, Eritrea, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Sudan, Timor-Leste and the United Arab Emirates.

Gillnets and demersal trawl nets pose a threat to green sawfish and they often become bycatch. The species is protected and falls under a no-take status in areas including Australia, Bahrain and India. Habitat loss also poses a threat to remaining populations. Green sawfish are fully protected in Australia, India, Bahrain and Qatar.

  1. Argentine angelshark

Argentine angelsharks inhabit sandy areas around 167 to 1049 feet (51 to 320 m) deep in the Southwest Atlantic from Santa Catarina, Brazil to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Population decline in Uruguay and Argentina is between 70 and 90 percent.

The largest threat to Argentine angelsharks is ending up as bycatch. They are also sold for their meat even though they are protected in Brazil and covered in the Total Allowable Catch quotas in Argentina and Uruguay.

  1. Common skate

Common skate have been seen (and caught) in Albania, Algeria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal (Madeira), Slovenia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. While they were once abundant, sightings are now rare and mostly near the edge of the continental shelf.

Traditionally, common skate were targeted for their large size and they also end up as bycatch. The largest threat to the species is commercial fishing and trawl nets. There is a Total Allowable Catch limit on skates in the North Sea and adjacent waters with fishermen required to release common skates upon catch.

  1. Sawback angelshark

Scientists think sawback angelsharks have declined by about 80 percent in the past 45 years. They are generally found in Cyprus, Gambia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Turkey and Tunisia. They live near the seabed at depths between 98 to 1640 feet (30 to 500 m).

Sawback angelsharks are vulnerable to becoming bycatch in trawls and dredges. They are also threatened by human disturbances of their habitats. Sawback angelsharks are protected in the Mediterranean, Balearic Island, Spain, Malta, Israel and Turkey.

  1. Smoothback angelshark

The Smoothback Angelshark is extremely rare, even in areas where they once were abundant. An estimated decline of more than 80 percent occurred in the past 45 years. Of those that remain, scientists believe they inhabit waters in Tunisia, Cyprus, Gambia, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Italy, Libya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Turkey and possibly Côte d’Ivoire and Egypt.

The highest threat to smoothback angelsharks is bycatch from trawling, trammel nets, bottom longlines and dredges. They are often used for their liver oil and fins (especially in Senegal). They are protected in the Mediterranean, Spain, Turkey and Israel.

  1. Longnose skate

Longnose skates are endemic to southeastern Australia and Tasmania. They live on the continental shelf between 65 and 1968 feet (20 to 600 m), most commonly between 65 and 393 feet (20 and 120 m). Population declines of between 93 and 99 percent have been recorded over three generations (about 28.5 years).

The largest threat to longnose is bycatch, with most catches (over 90 percent) occurring in water less than 653 feet (199 m) deep. Trawl nets and deep-water long lines especially threaten the species. There are no species-specific conservation measures in place for longnose skate, although they may be included in some marine protected areas.

  1. Pakistan whipray

The Pakistan whipray lives in waters near eastern Pakistan and the west coast of India. Scientists think the species has declined by more than 80 percent in the past three generations. They usually live in shallow, muddy areas up to a depth of 120 feet (37 m).

Pakistan whipray are caught as bycatch, and are specifically targeted for their pectoral fins (exported to Thailand and Malaysia), their skin (to be made into leather) and meat. There are no species-specific conservation actions in place, although India has a seasonal ban on trawling each year between June 15 and July 1.

  1. Stripenose guitarfish

Stripenose guitarfish mostly live in waters between 33 and 133 feet (10 to 40 m) off southern India and Sri Lanka, with a preference for coral reefs. Scientists have observed a decline of more than 97 percent of the species in the past three generations (15 years).

The species faces threats from trawling and decline of coral habitats due to destructive fishing practices, coastal development and climate change. Ray meat is becoming more and more popular in India, leading fishermen to target stripenose guitarfish for their meat. There are no species-specific conservation actions in place although India and Sri Lanka do have finning bans in place.

  1. Ornate sleeper ray

The ornate sleeper ray has only been identified based on a handful of individuals recorded off the eastern coast of South Africa over a two-decade period. The ornate sleeper ray favors sandy areas of less than 165 feet (50 m) in depth and the area of occupancy is less than 3.86 square miles (10 km²).

Ornate sleeper rays are vulnerable to harassment and disturbance by divers and fisheries, pollutants and habitat degradation. There are currently no species-specific conservation actions in place for these animals.

  1. Brazilian guitarfish

Brazilian guitarfish inhabit waters from Brazil to Argentina, with most individuals concentrated near southern Brazil. A decline of more than 80 percent has been observed in the species since 1986. Adults can be found in shallower coastal water of less than 66 feet (20 m) between November to March. Breeding takes place in March, after which they return to depths of between 141 to 192 feet (40 to 150 m).

Brazilian guitarfish are often caught as bycatch by trawlers. They are listed as critically endangered in Brazil. Accidental catches of these fish should be discarded at sea and no permits to catch them are being issued. A prohibition of trawl fishing within three nautical miles of the coast of southern Brazil is enforced.

  1. Maltese skate

Maltese Skate are found in a small area in the Sicilian channel around Malta Island at a depth of between 197 to 2624 feet (60 to 800 m). Scientists think that the population will decline by about 80 percent over the next 3 generations.

Maltese skate populations are concentrated in areas that also experience high levels of trawling, making them vulnerable to bycatch. No specific conservation actions are active at present, although a number of recommendations are being evaluated.

  1. Caribbean numbfish

Carribbean numbfish live in shallow water up to 115 feet (35 m) in the Western Atlantic from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Lesser and Greater Antilles and the north coast of South America to at least Maranhão in northern Brazil.

Surf areas near barrier beaches and offshore sand bars are favorite habitats for these fish in the summer months, while they move offshore in the winter. The largest threat to Caribbean numbfish is trawling and although they are usually not utilized, but rather released, their survival rates are very low.

Currently there are no species-specific conservation actions in place for the Caribbean numbfish.

We’ve focused here only on the red-listed shark and ray species that appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. While shark finning is still a large threat to these species, trawler fishing is creating massive destruction and decline among these populations. One way to help them is to stop eating fish — period — but at the very least, do your research and make sure the fish you’re eating did not come from a trawler.