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An Interview with Sonja Fordham, founder of Shark Advocates International

Building Strong Policy to Protect Sharks

Fordham in boat

"…finning bans alone are not sufficient to safeguard sharks. Strict science-based limits on catch are also essential to ensuring that fishing for these generally slow growing animals is sustainable."

— Sonja Fordham

SeaWeb:  What role do you play in promoting greater awareness and support for shark conservation?

Sonja Fordham: I started Shark Advocates International under The Ocean Foundation to continue and hone my efforts to rally like-minded environmentalists, scientists, divers, animal welfare advocates, fishermen, and government officials around common shark conservation goals.  My work is focused on securing science-based limits on shark fishing and trade, so I work closely with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as well as the American and European shark science societies.  I also serve on a variety of advisory panels for shark fisheries management on local, regional, and international levels, and testify at related meetings, on behalf of coalitions whenever possible.  In addition to sharing information and perspectives through these bodies, I embrace opportunities to interest the public in shark conservation through articles, guest blogs, speaking engagements, media work, and policy debates.

SW: What have been the landmark international agreements that address shark conservation?

SF: A key initial step in international shark conservation movement came in 1994 when Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed a Resolution urging countries to gather biological and trade information on sharks.  That Resolution led to the 1999 International Plan of Action (IPOA) for Sharks under the United Nations. While related commitments have yet to be fulfilled, the IPOA for sharks has been the impetus for numerous national and regional shark measures.  In 2002, basking and whale sharks became the first shark species to be listed under CITES Appendix II (and therefore subject to international trade controls).  Although “finning” (slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea) has been illegal in the US Atlantic since 1993, this wasteful practice was first banned on an international level in 2004 by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).  Within two years, most other international fisheries bodies had followed.   At the 2007 CITES meeting, international trade in most closely related sawfish species was essentially banned through listing under Appendix I.  In 2010, Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species adopted a Memorandum of Understanding for Sharks that holds promise for regional conservation of wide-ranging, vulnerable shark species.

SW: What policies are needed to safeguard sharks?

SF: One of the simplest measures to improve the outlook for sharks is to end the removal of shark fins at sea.  This is by far the best way to prevent shark finning, and, because sharks are easier to identify by species when their fins are still attached, to enhance our understanding of shark catches and populations.  While the growing number of finning bans is encouraging, in many cases compliance is checked using complicated fin to body weight ratios that can leave wiggle room for finning.  Most shark fishing in the US and Central America is now held to a “fins attached” rule and this method is under consideration in the European Union (EU).  Adoption by the EU could help sharks on a global scale, as the EU has vessels fishing sharks around the world and is influential in international fishing policy negotiations.  Conservationists within the Shark Alliance are working to convince Spain, a top shark fishing country, to end its opposition to an EU-wide ban on at-sea shark fin removal so that these benefits can be realized.

It is important to stress, however, that finning bans alone are not sufficient to safeguard sharks.  Strict science-based limits on catch are also essential to ensuring that fishing for these generally slow growing animals is sustainable.  When scientific advice is not available, precautionary limits are warranted.  The IUCN Red List can help identify the shark species in any given region that most need protection. 

SW: What are the major barriers to implementation of effective shark conservation policies?

SF: Sharks suffer from gaps in information about catches, biology, and population status as well as their negative image as man-eaters or pests.  These factors, together with pressure from fishermen, too often impede political will for adopting strict limits on shark fishing and trade.  This situation is improving as shark research expands and people become more educated and vocal about the shark’s true plight, but progress must be accelerated if we are to reverse population declines and save some species from extinction.

SW: What steps can be taken by individuals to break down those barriers?

SF: People who want to help sharks can use the power of their choices and of their voices.  They can commit to avoiding unsustainable shark products and to informing businesses – be it restaurants, markets, or ocean resorts  -- of their interest in healthy shark populations.  It is also vital that concerned citizens contact policy makers to express support for shark conservation initiatives at all levels.  Strong and persistent public support is essential to convincing governments to adopt and promote sound shark fishing policies.


Sonja FordhamSonja Fordham has been a leader in the field of shark conservation for nearly two  decades.  She directed shark conservation projects at the Washington, DC-based Ocean
Conservancy from 1991-2009.  In mid-2006, she began a three and a half year assignment in Brussels as policy director for the Shark Alliance, a coalition formed to
improve European shark policies.  She founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in May 2010. Her work has focused on publicizing the plight of sharks and advocating science-based policies on their behalf before fishery
management and wildlife conservation bodies.  
Ms. Fordham has been a leading proponent of numerous, landmark shark conservation
actions, including the first U.S. fishing limits for Atlantic sharks and rays, the United
Nations International Plan of Action for Sharks, U.S. and international finning bans, the
first listings of sharks and rays under the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, the addition of sawfish to the U.S. Endangered Species list,
various protections for threatened European sharks and rays, a series of international
shark fishing limits at Regional Fishery Management Organizations, and multiple
United Nations General Assembly Resolutions encouraging shark conservation.
Ms. Fordham received a U.S. Department of Commerce
Environmental Hero Award in
2000, a
Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council Fishery Achievement Award in 2004,
and the inaugural
Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award in 2007.  In 2008,
Washingtonian magazine named her one of 30 local Eco-Heroes.