In a bid to save the iconic Great Barrier Reef — a structure currently reeling under its worst coral bleaching event on record — from further damage, the World Wildlife Fund has decided to take an unusual step. The WWF plans to purchase a Great Barrier Reef shark fishing license, and then retire it, which it says would save at least 10,000 sharks in the fragile biodiversity hotspot.
The conservation group hopes that donations would help it raise the $100,000 needed to purchase the license.
“It’s a new approach to conservation,” WWF-Australia's Conservation Director Gilly Llewellyn said in a statement released Wednesday. “This is an opportunity for people to help stop a massive 1.2 km [0.7 mile] long net from sitting in Reef waters and indiscriminately killing almost everything that swims into it. These enormous nets kill tens of thousands of juvenile sharks each year.”
The license that the WWF is hoping to buy was, between 1993 and 2004, used to catch an average of 10,000 sharks per year. However, since then, the license — which its current owner has put up for purchase — has not been used even once.
“Someone could buy it tomorrow and go fishing with it in a couple of months' time and it could be catching sharks again,” Llewellyn told ABC News, in response to questions about how worthwhile the purchase would be.
The move comes at a time when corals in the Great Barrier Reef — a 1,400-mile-long structure consisting of nearly 3,000 individual reefs — have come under increasing stress from climate change-induced ocean warming and the El Niño weather phenomenon. Recent surveys have shown that over 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by some level of bleaching, and nearly 35 percent of corals in its northern and central parts have died as a result.
According to the WWF, its move to purchase the license with the sole aim of removing it from circulation would not only protect apex predators — including hammerhead sharks that are endangered — it would also save the reef from further damage.
“After bleaching, algae spreads,” Llewellyn said in the statement. “Researchers found that where sharks were removed by overfishing, smaller predators like snapper became more abundant. These snapper kill the algae-eating fish and the algae then overwhelms young coral.”
Research has, in fact, highlighted a link between the population of sharks and the health of coral reefs. A 2013 study found that on reefs without sharks, “mesopredators” such as snappers and emperors were much more abundant.
“Given the predicted future of coral reefs under climate change, with more bleaching and cyclones at greater intensity, anything that potentially weakens the ability of reefs to recover is worrying,” the researchers wrote for the Conversation.
In the Great Barrier Reef, for instance, 402 tons of shark catches were recorded in 2015 — an increase of more than 80 percent over the previous year. Earlier this year, the Australian government also faced accusations of hypocrisy after it opted out of legally binding international agreement to protect endangered sharks — including two species of hammerheads — and chose to sign a non-binding agreement instead.