On World Ocean Day this past Tuesday, the government of Gabon passed significant measures to regulate and protect the country’s sharks and rays.
Gabon’s waters are home to a variety of shark and ray species such as the open ocean whale shark and the giant manta ray. This wide diversity makes Gabon a perfect environment for marine life to thrive, however major threats like unsustainable and unethical fishing practices have already brought some of Gabon’s species to extinction, like the sawfish — a large shark-like ray that hasn’t been seen in Gabon for three decades.
To prevent losses like this from happening in the future, the Gabon government partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society for the last ten years to identify the 69 species present in the country’s waters so that they can better preserve the lives and habitats of the remaining sharks and rays.
The country’s two new laws are a direct result of this research. The first law requires fisheries to have special authorization to target sharks and rays. When and if the fisheries are granted this authorization, the government also provides a list of the most vulnerable and therefore fully protected species.
Under the same law, the practice of shark finning and all export of shark and ray products from Gabon is banned. On top of regulating and hopefully preventing the shark fin trade, this will help Gabon meet its shark and ray obligations in accordance with the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES).
The second law adds a wide range of sharks and rays to Gabon’s list of protected marine species, which offers two levels of protection.
Species that are extremely vulnerable and endangered, like the manta and mobula rays and whale sharks, are offered the strongest level of protection. This means that when fisheries catch these species, they must be immediately released. The law also obliges fisheries to change their fishing techniques so that any bycatch of these species amounts to less than one percent of the total catch.
The new laws also ensure that Gabon meets its shark and ray obligations under international conservation measures, like CITES, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
Artisanal fisheries that catch small-bodied coastal species that are consumed traditionally by locals will still be allowed to fish, but they will be monitored and regulated closely. The government and coastal communities will work together to ensure that fisheries maintain a sustainable approach.