A staggering percentage of the world's sharks and rays are now "alarmingly" close to the brink of extinction, according to the a new study spearheaded by the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The study -- said to be first global analysis of the conservation status of 1,041 shark, ray and related species -- found that at least one in every four existing species of sharks and rays may soon be wiped off the face of the planet. The shrinking numbers are largely due to overfishing, the researchers said.
"Our analysis shows that sharks and their relatives are facing an alarmingly elevated risk of extinction,” said Dr. Nick Dulvy, one of the study's co-authors, according to a media release. “In greatest peril are the largest species of rays and sharks, especially those living in shallow water that is accessible to fisheries."
A collaborative project that involved more than 300 experts from 64 countries, the study also found that chondrichthyes -- the class of cartilaginous fish (so-called because their skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone) that includes sharks, rays and chimaeras -- are at a "substantially higher risk than most other groups of animals and have the lowest percentage of species considered safe -- with only 23 percent categorized as 'Least Concern.'"
Researchers say they were also troubled to find that rays are generally even more threatened than sharks are. Rays like sawfish, wedgefish, guitarfish and stingray, for instance, are among the top 10 most-threatened families of chondrichthyes.
“While public, media and government attention to the plight of sharks is growing, the widespread depletion of rays is largely unnoticed," said study co-author Dr. Colin Simpfendorfer, per the release. "Conservation action for rays is lagging far behind, which only heightens our concern for this species group.”
The IUCN created an infographic summarizing the study's findings. Scroll down to peruse it. Story continues below infographic.
Sonja Fordham, co-author of the study and deputy chair of the Shark Specialist Group, told The Huffington Post that though sharks are perhaps "more charismatic" and "naturally fascinating" than rays, people need to understand that the two groups of animals are actually closely related and face "a lot of the same threats." Fordham also said that some rays, including sawfish and guitarfish, are valuable for the shark fin soup market.
Fordham, who is president of the conservation group Shark Advocates International, told the HuffPost that she hopes the study's findings will not only raise public awareness of the plight facing sharks and rays, but will also kickstart global action to protect these animals.
"A lot of progress has been made, but we do need to pick up the pace," she said of shark and ray conservation efforts. "We need to expand the scope of our efforts and recognize that we need to do a better job in the employing of safeguards for the whole group -- the rays, as well as the sharks."
According to the IUCN, sharks, rays and chimaeras are "one of the world’s oldest and most ecologically-diverse groups of animals."