Endangered sharks found in 10% of fish sold as ‘flake’: alarming new study

  • Australia allows endangered sharks to be caught and sold for Aussies to eat
  • 4% of ‘flake’ samples were the endangered greeneye spurdog, yet only 69kg was caught and sold in the whole year
  • 91% of shark sold as ‘flake’ not actually flake (gummy shark) but other sharks, including endangered sharks
  • Australia’s threatened endemic sharks need better protection, with population declines of up to 90%

A new study shows 10% of shark meat sold in Australian fish shops and markets was endangered species, which has alarmed conservation groups the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) and Humane Society International (HSI) Australia.

Even more alarming is that 4% of the samples tested were endangered greeneye spurdog when NSW is the only jurisdiction that allows the species to be retained and in only small numbers. NSW fishing records show that only 69kg of greeneye spurdog was caught and sold in the year when the samples were collected, equating to less than 0.004% of the 2100 tonnes of shark caught and sold that year in south-east Australia.

The Macquarie University study used DNA testing to sample 91 fillets of shark collected from fish shops and markets around the country.

  • 57 of the 91 samples (80%) were mislabelled;
  • Nine samples were from three endangered species in Australian waters: scalloped hammerhead (three samples), two greeneye spurdog (two) and school shark (four);
  • 43 of the 47 samples labelled ‘flake’ (91%) were not flake (gummy shark or New Zealand rig shark) and included the endangered greeneye spurdog and scalloped hammerhead;
  • Mislabelling was much higher in takeaway shops (68%) compared with fish markets and wholesalers (47%).

The high level of mislabelling highlights not only failures in labelling laws, but also failures in fishing rules that permit the continued harvest of endangered species. Some samples were labelled “boneless fillet” or “boneless sweetfish”, so consumers may not even realise they are buying shark.

AMCS shark expert Dr Leonardo Guida said: “Australians would be appalled to know that our governments allow endangered species to be caught and sold for Aussies to eat. They would also be appalled to know that the fish they buy may not be what was written on the label.

“This study shows that we need to improve protection of our endangered sharks, especially the deepwater species such as the greeneye spurdog, a small shark that lives only in Australian waters and is thought to be almost extinct in NSW.

“The greeneye spurdog is incredibly slow to reproduce, having just three chances at reproducing over its lifetime. It reaches maturity at around 16 years old, lives to around 26 years and has one of the longest pregnancies in the world at nearly three years.

“NSW is the only jurisdiction that allows greeneye spurdog to be kept when caught, and only around four individuals per fishing trip. NSW fishing records show that only 69kg of greeneye spurdog was caught in the year the samples were collected, compared with about 2100 tonnes of shark caught and sold annually in south-east Australia.

“If fishing rules are being followed, the chance of finding endangered greeneye spurdog in a fish retailer are miniscule. Finding greeneye spurdog in the 91 samples collected across the country is like finding a needle in a haystack. The study suggests greeneye spurdog is being caught in NSW and shipped to Victoria or, even worse, illegal fishing is happening in Australia.

“It is clear our laws to protect nature and our endangered species are not working. It is imperative the Australian Government speeds up on delivering the promised overhaul of our nature laws.”

HSI marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck said: “The greeneye spurdog is allowed to be fished and sold because they are not yet protected under Australia’s environmental laws. The greeneye spurdog has been classified as Endangered by the international conservation agency IUCN, and it should be a simple case of making the same decision under federal legislation. Our sharks and rays cannot be left out in the cold.

“HSI Australia and AMCS nominated the greeneye spurdog for this protection in 2020, yet they and other sharks and rays in desperate need of strong conservation measures have languished in assessment backlogs since that time.”

Dr Guida said: “All Australian fisheries need to modernise their methods to make sure that fishers are not catching endangered species. It’s imperative to have cameras on board all boats so operators know when they are catching too many endangered species and know when to move on to other fishing grounds or stop altogether. The extra data will also help improve planning to protect endangered species.

“This study shows that we need to improve protection of our endangered sharks, especially deepwater species endemic to Australian waters such as the greeneye spurdog. We need to fish for the future if we want to fish in the future.”

A new report released by AMCS and HSI Australia shows that 10 of Australia’s 13 threatened endemic sharks and rays – including the greeneye spurdog – are heavily impacted by Australia’s biggest fishery, the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery, with population declines of up to 90% in some species. The SESSF extends from southern Western Australia to southern Queensland, including the waters around Tasmania and Lord Howe Island.

The independent report – Fishery and spatial management solutions to inform the protection and recovery of Australia’s threatened endemic elasmobranchs – identifies six regions near existing marine parks that with better protection or fisheries management could help these 10 endemic species avoid extinction. The six regions – off the coast of NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Flinders Island, Kangaroo Island and in the Great Australian Bight – can provide refuge and sanctuary for more than one of the endemic species.

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