Conservation groups say there are discrepancies in the record keeping of “endangered” hammerhead shark fin exports from Australian waters over the past seven years.

Key points:

  • Some of Australia’s hammerhead sharks are considered critically endangered, but accurate data on population size is unavailable
  • Conservationists say numerous measures recommended in 2014 around recording hammerheads caught by fisheries haven’t been implemented
  • They say Australia needs to reclassify some hammerheads as endangered, in line with IUCN listing

At times, countries buying the shark fins have recorded higher or lower numbers of fins arriving in their shipments than have been reported in the Australian export logs.

One particularly large shipment included 900 kilograms of shark fins arriving in Hong Kong without any corresponding export records from Australia, according to a report commissioned by the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS).

Under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to which Australia is a signatory, all countries importing and exporting endangered species are required to report those transactions to the CITES Secretariat, with that data then being made publicly available.

By keeping accurate records, it’s intended that endangered species are not harvested unsustainably or in the worst-case scenario, to extinction.

A federal government department spokesperson said there was “no evidence to suggest any illegal trade at this stage”.

Fishing industry representatives and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment say while they’re investigating discrepancies in import-export data, they’re confident that hammerheads can be harvested sustainably while they improve systems to deal with the global issue of illegal shark fishing.

But the AMCS, Humane Society International and other researchers say the discrepancy reflects a bigger issue — we’re unsure how many hammerhead sharks we have, and whether harvesting them could be endangering the species’ survival.

Three species of hammerhead treated as one

Two dead hammerheads on the sand.

A number of CITES recommendations to improve the sustainability of hammerhead fishing in Australia still haven’t been implemented, according to conservationists.(

Flickr: Rowena

)

Australia has two warm-water species of hammerhead shark — the great and scalloped — found in coastal waters roughly north of Sydney in the east, and Geraldton in the west.

Both are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But in Australia, the scalloped hammerhead is listed as “conservation dependent” – a category that allows conditional harvest – while the great hammerhead is not listed under our Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

A third colder water species, the smooth hammerhead, is considered vulnerable by the IUCN and is not listed under the EPBC Act.

In 2014, greater protections were afforded all three hammerhead species globally under the CITES.

Under that convention, Australia was obliged to conduct a review into the harvest and export of these species to determine if they could continue to be harvested sustainably, and if so, at what volume.

The result of that review was what is called a non-detriment finding (NDF) — that is, they deemed the harvest could continue without detriment to the three species of hammerhead at annual volumes of 200 tonnes, 100 tonnes and 70 tonnes for the scalloped, great and smooth hammerheads respectively.

But there was a big problem with this finding, according to Jo-anne McCrea, a fisheries scientist who was commissioned by the AMCS to conduct the report.

To determine how much of a population of a species can be harvested each year, scientists need to know things like the present population size, the rate of reproduction, and what percentage of the population survives to breeding age.

But we’ve never had an accurate measurement of hammerhead shark population size, according to Ms McCrea.

Part of the issue is that there is no historical data on population size, and the data we do have mostly doesn’t distinguish between the three unique species, according to shark ecologist Bonnie Holmes of the University of the Sunshine Coast, who was not associated with the report.

“Most of what we know is based on historical commercial [fishing] logbook catch data, and even that is not species-specific,” Dr Holmes said.

Declining population suspected, but data lacking

A dead hammerhead on a set drumline.

Shark drumlines are an added pressure on hammerheads, like this scalloped hammerhead.(

Supplied: HSI/AMCS/N McLachlan

)

Using catch logbooks as an estimate of population is an inexact science and the results need to be interpreted with caution, Dr Holmes said.

The method used is what is called catch-per-unit-effort.

In essence, if fishers have historically caught, say, 100 hammerheads for every 200 hours of fishing effort, and they still catch that today, you can infer that the population of hammerheads is roughly stable.

But if they only catch five hammerheads for every 200 hours fishing today, we can presume there has been a significant drop in population.

Even with improved fishing methods, she said most data does suggest there has been a decline in hammerhead numbers in Australian waters.

“Generally we [think] there has been a decline, but it’s got to be taken as there’s probably something going on, and we need to do more targeted research.”

Recommendations from 2014 report still not implemented

One of the recommendations of the 2014 non-detriment finding was that fishers begin recording the specific species of hammerhead they are catching.

Another was that the health status of discarded bycatch – whether the animal was alive or dead – should be recorded if a hammerhead shark was returned to the water.

But the report found that Western Australia still doesn’t require identification of hammerheads down to a species level, and neither WA, Victoria, South Australia nor Tasmania require the health status of discarded sharks to be recorded.

Fish and sharks in the hull of an illegal Chinese fishing vessel.

Globally, illegal fishing poses a significant threat to sharks. This Chinese vessel was intercepted in Ecuadorian waters.(

Supplied: Environment Ministry of Ecuador

)

An added pressure on the sharks is that despite having never being involved in a fatal attack in Australia, hammerheads are incidentally caught in shark nets and drum lines.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment said there had been improvements in areas such as species-level reporting in logbooks, reduced bycatch, and reporting to species level of discarded fish.

“Progress has been made against all of these recommendations by fisheries management agencies,” they said.

“This has been driven in part by the conditions placed on environmental approvals by the Australian Government.”

But Ms McCrea said her analysis showed that by this year, only 28 per cent of the recommendations laid out in the 2014 finding had been fully implemented.

“Another 10 per cent have been partially implemented, and 55 per cent not implemented, or presumed not implemented in any form,” she said.

Despite having a poor historical record in this regard, Queensland is the state that has made the most improvement in this area.

A spokesperson for Fisheries Queensland said significant steps had been taken to improve the sustainability of the state’s fishery since 2018.

“Commercial catch and effort data in Queensland is monitored through statutory logbook reporting, which requires species-level reporting of retained and discarded shark, including hammerhead sharks,” the spokesperson said.

“From 2015-2020, the average Queensland catch of hammerhead shark was 42 tonnes per annum, well below the harvest levels considered to be non-detrimental.”

Call to ban all commercial hammerhead fishing

A review of the non-detriment finding conducted in 2017 recommended that another review take place once more research had been conducted into the population of hammerheads in Australian waters.

AMCS shark expert Leonardo Guida said that time had well and truly come.

“We last reviewed it in 2017… there’s been a wealth of scientific studies since then,” Dr Guida said.

“We want to see the federal Environment Minister conduct a review of the non-detriment finding [and] any recommendations need to be mandated and time bound, so the can isn’t kicked down the road.”

The AMCS say Australia needs to bring its classification of the great and scalloped hammerheads into line with the global IUCN critically endangered listing, unless it can prove otherwise, Dr Guida said.

“The biggest problem is Australia is still trading in an endangered species.”

In response to questions from the ABC, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said another review of the non-detriment finding was planned this year.

“The Australian CITES Scientific Authority most recently reviewed its assessment of hammerhead sharks in 2017 and will undertake a further review once the outcomes of the national stock-assessment for scalloped hammerhead sharks is available later this year,” they said.

Mystery of missing shark fins drives call for ban on commercial hammerhead fishing
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