Indexed on: 10 Nov '09Published on: 10 Nov '09Published in: Advances in marine biology
Marine biodiversity worldwide is under increasing threat, primarily as a result of over-harvesting, pollution and climate change. Chondrichthyan fishes (sharks, rays and chimaeras) have a perceived higher intrinsic risk of extinction compared to other fish. Direct fishing mortality has driven many declines, even though some smaller fisheries persist without associated declines. Mixed-species fisheries are of particular concern, as is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The lack of specific management and reporting mechanisms for the latter means that many chondrichthyans might already be susceptible to extinction from stochastic processes entirely unrelated to fishing pressure itself. Chondrichthyans might also suffer relatively more than other marine taxa from the effects of fishing and habitat loss and degradation given coastal habitat use for specific life stages. The effects of invasive species and pollution are as yet too poorly understood to predict their long-term role in affecting chondrichthyan population sizes. The spatial distribution of threatened chondrichthyan species under World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List criteria are clustered mainly in (1) south-eastern South America; (2) western Europe and the Mediterranean; (3) western Africa; (4) South China Sea and Southeast Asia and (5) south-eastern Australia. To determine which ecological and life history traits predispose chondrichthyans to being IUCN Red-Listed, and to examine the role of particular human activities in exacerbating threat risk, we correlated extant marine species' Red List categorisation with available ecological (habitat type, temperature preference), life history (body length, range size) and human-relationship (whether commercially or game-fished, considered dangerous to humans) variables. Threat risk correlations were constructed using generalised linear mixed-effect models to account for phylogenetic relatedness. We also contrasted results for chondrichthyans to marine teleosts to test explicitly whether the former group is intrinsically more susceptible to extinction than fishes in general. Around 52% of chondrichthyans have been Red-Listed compared to only 8% of all marine teleosts; however, listed teleosts were in general placed more frequently into the higher-risk categories relative to chondrichthyans. IUCN threat risk in both taxa was positively correlated with body size and negatively correlated albeit weakly, with geographic range size. Even after accounting for the positive influence of size, Red-Listed teleosts were still more likely than chondrichthyans to be classified as threatened. We suggest that while sharks might not have necessarily experienced the same magnitude of deterministic decline as Red-Listed teleosts, their larger size and lower fecundity (not included in the analysis) predispose chondrichthyans to a higher risk of extinction overall. Removal of these large predators can elicit trophic cascades and destabilise the relative abundance of smaller species. Predator depletions can lead to permanent shifts in marine communities and alternate equilibrium states. Climate change might influence the phenology and physiology of some species, with the most probable response being changes in the timing of migrations and shifts in distribution. The synergistic effects among harvesting, habitat changes and climate-induced forcings are greatest for coastal chondrichthyans with specific habitat requirements and these are currently the most likely candidates for extinction. Management of shark populations must take into account the rate at which drivers of decline affect specific species. Only through the detailed collection of data describing demographic rates, habitat affinities, trophic linkages and geographic ranges, and how environmental stressors modify these, can extinction risk be more precisely estimated and reduced. The estimation of minimum viable population sizes, below which rapid extinction is more likely due to stochastic processes, is an important component of this endeavour and should accompany many of the current approaches used in shark management worldwide.