In the Mediterranean, more endangered sharks and rays are caught by artisanal fishing gear in partially protected marine areas than in unprotected areas. This is revealed in a study by Italian researchers, who are calling for better fisheries management in these conservation areas.
Marine protected areas are promoted as a conservation tool for endangered species, where fishing should be controlled, but sometimes the goal is not achieved.
A new study, published openly in Nature Communications, reveals that threatened sharks and rays in the Mediterranean Sea, including critically endangered species, are more frequently caught inside marine protected areas than in those without protection.
The authors, researchers from the University of Palermo and the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station (SZN) – Sicily Marine Center in Palermo, Italy, used photographic samples and image analysis to build a database of 1256 small-scale fishing operations at 11 sites in France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia and Greece.
Using statistical modelling, the scientists analysed the catch data and counted 24 species of these elasmobranch fish, with 517 specimens caught in partially protected areas, compared to 358 caught in unprotected areas, pointing to an impact of artisanal fishing.
Manfredi Di Lorenzo, first author of the study, explains that “fishing is allowed within these areas, but only with an authorisation that is generally granted to local fishermen, whose activity is small-scale (artisanal)”.
Elasmobranchs are a subclass of cartilaginous fish (whose skeleton is formed by cartilage) that includes sharks and rays. They were once very abundant in the Mediterranean Sea, but have declined over time due to overfishing.
Although some of these elasmobranchs are considered endangered, their capture is generally permitted, with the exception of certain species.
Antonio Calò, co-author of the study and researcher at the University of Palermo, tells SINC that, although some are considered endangered, their capture is generally permitted, with the exception of several species included in the Barcelona Convention.
The influence of small-scale fishing on the populations of these animals is currently little studied in the Mediterranean, due to the lack of tracking devices on vessels.
It is known that the activity of artisanal fishing vessels, which represent the majority of vessels operating in the Mediterranean region analysed, affects elasmobranch species, but understanding whether protected areas actually serve to conserve them is a challenge.
Improving management plans for marine protected areas
“We think the animals prefer to stay in protected areas – fully or partially – because they are more prosperous and safer,” says Antonio Di Franco, a researcher at SZN.
The authors argue that these areas play an important role in protecting threatened elasmobranchs, but additional management measures and stricter law enforcement are needed to ensure successful conservation outcomes.
“It would help to involve fishermen and inform them of the risk that many of these species are running,” says Di Franco, “and it would also help to modify fishing techniques so that they are more selective and allow only certain animals to be caught.
“Currently most of the information on elasmobranch catches comes from industrial fisheries. What we need to start doing as soon as possible is to monitor the fish caught by artisanal fishermen. This is necessary information and there is very little data in the world. In the Mediterranean, this is very important, especially since small-scale fisheries account for 80% of the entire commercial fleet,” Di Lorenzo concludes.