While public opinion appears to be turning in favour of sharks, Sonja Fordham thinks it’s time to draw attention to their lesser-known but equally threatened fellow chondrichthyans: the skates, rays and sawfishes of the oceans.
When was the last time you saw a protest outside a French restaurant serving raie (ray), a letter demanding the release of a captive stingray or a petition calling for an end to the cruel practice of ‘winging’ skates alive?
These days, thanks largely to the advent of social media, it seems the Internet is ablaze with concern about the mistreatment and mismanagement of sharks. This enthusiasm and public support is encouraging and vital, especially considering all the damage done in the ‘only good shark is a dead shark’ era, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that a broader view of these exceptionally vulnerable animals is appropriate – and, in fact, urgently needed.
Lately more than ever, I find myself reminding people that – in the contexts of biology and of international policy – the term ‘shark’ usually encompasses all the chondrichthyan fishes (that is, fishes with skeletons made of cartilage rather than bone), which include dogfishes, chimaeras and a wide variety of rays. Within this group, the chimaeras probably get the least love and dogfishes are subject to the most negative characterisations, but let us focus for the moment on the ‘flat sharks’, a wonderful array of cartilaginous species that encompasses skates, devil rays, mantas, sawfishes, guitarfishes and stingrays. These species share the inherent vulnerability of ‘proper’ sharks but perhaps not their charisma – and the consequences of this are deeply troubling.
From a conservation perspective, it is important to stress that rays are generally more threatened and less protected than sharks. In fact, five of the seven most threatened families of cartilaginous fish are made up of rays (and that’s not even including the somewhat flattened angel sharks). These findings were presented earlier this year in the global Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM paper presented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group (SSG).
There are over 1,000 species of sharks and rays in our oceans. Sonja champions their fight by attending meetings all over the world, convincing policy-makers to show some love to even the smallest skate.