Recent research on global shark and ray landings highlighted Sri Lanka among several countries that have suffered the greatest declines over the last decade. Reading the findings caused me to cast my mind back to my own experience in that country almost exactly a year ago.
Dawn had broken at the Negombo market, and most of the manta rays, devil rays and myriad other fishes had already been auctioned off. I was about to head back to my hotel when a small refrigerated truck pulled in and opened its back doors to reveal sharks piled to the roof.
Over the next hour, I lingered and kept a mental note of the species and sizes hauled out to be crudely sorted on the wet concrete floor of one of Sri Lankaâ€™s largest fish landing sites and markets.
As a primarily office-bound conservationist, I am acutely aware of the need to get into the field and remain in touch with the realities. But still I was stunned when, an hour later and after being told by a burly, tattooed chap in no uncertain terms to leave, more than 70 sharks had been unloaded with no end in sight.
It wasnâ€™t just the number that made an impression, but the diversity and large size of some of the sharks brought to market on just one day. Tiger sharks, shortfin mako and silky sharks were among the more easily identifiable, along with some species that would soon be subject to international trade controls under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): scalloped and smooth hammerheads and oceanic whitetips.
In the days prior, I had also seen three or four oceanic manta rays being landed each morning, along with dozens of smaller devil rays. They were weighed after being sold to the highest bidder, and the gill plates removed to be dried and sold to China. The hard gill plates are used to make a health tonic in southern China and, alarmingly, demand seems to be rising. The meat was filleted to be sold off cheaply, fresh or dried.
Sharks are caught in traditional targeted shark fisheries in Sri Lanka, but pelagic (open sea) species and the manta and devil rays are also caught by tuna vessels using large open-ocean gill-nets, generally combined with longlines.
The degree to which these tuna fishers intend to include sharks and rays in their catches is unclear. What is clear is that the current catches of the larger sharks and rays in Sri Lanka are almost certainly not sustainable, given the minimal controls and their slow reproductive rates.
My visit to Negombo was before the new CITES Appendix II listings that include three hammerhead and all manta ray species came into effect in mid-September 2014. Listing animals and plants on CITES Appendix II is intended to improve the prospects for species threatened by the international trade in their parts by requiring that nations harvesting them undertake sustainability assessments, and only export an amount that will be sustainable.
Countries can simply elect not to export CITES Appendix II species or products, such as the hammerhead shark fins and manta gill plates I saw. But because Sri Lanka has a domestic market for shark meat, and the rays may genuinely be unintended bycatch, the number of animals being killed may not decline with these new regulations.
This is why it is so important that coastal nations such as Sri Lanka conduct sustainability assessments of their fisheries for these magnificent animals, and take measures to reduce catches to sustainable levels.