Depletion of the body snatchers: bad news for marine environment

7/27/2011

Gland, Switzerland/Arlington, VA — A recent study conducted for The IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM has determined that 20 percent of hagfish species are at an elevated risk of extinction*. Scientists warn that this figure could be much higher.

The results of this research, carried out in association with Conservation International (CI), indicate that the primary causes of hagfish declines are the direct and indirect effects of fisheries.

Hagfish represent an ancient and unique evolutionary lineage; as bottom feeders they play an important role by cleaning the ocean floor and recycling nutrients into the food web which maintains the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

"By consuming the dead and decaying carcasses that have fallen to the ocean floor, hagfish clean the floor creating a rich environment for other species including commercial fish such as cod, haddock and flounder," says Landon Knapp, research assistant for the IUCN Marine Biodiversity Unit at Old Dominion University and lead author of the study. "The presence of hagfish in areas of intense fishing is extremely important as large amounts of bycatch are discarded."

Particular areas of concern highlighted in the study include southern Australia, where the only hagfish species present is threatened, and the coast of southern Brazil. Also of concern are the species found in the East China Sea, the Pacific coast of Japan, and coastal Taiwan; in these areas, four of the 13 hagfish species occurring are threatened with extinction.

"In many geographic regions, only one or two hagfish species are present, and therefore the loss or decline of even a single species in these areas will have detrimental effects on ecosystems as a whole, as well as the fisheries that depend on them," says Dr Michael Mincarone, Professor of Zoology at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, an author of the study.

Fisheries worldwide directly profit from the harvesting of hagfish, such as Myxine garmani (Vulnerable) and Eptatretus burgeri (Near Threatened) for leather and food. Hagfish are also an important part of the food chain, being prey for fishes, seabirds and even marine mammals, including seals. When fishing pressure was focused on hagfish in certain locations in the north-western Atlantic, the stock of other commercial species, such as flounder, plummeted.

Overexploitation and destructive fishing practices are major threats to several hagfish species, including Myxine paucidens and Paramyxine taiwanae, both listed as Endangered. No current conservation measures or legislation exist to protect hagfish populations.

"Additional data is required and controls for the regulation and management of hagfish fisheries and other threats to hagfish populations are urgently needed to ensure the survival of these important species," says Dr Kent Carpenter, Professor at Old Dominion University, manager of IUCN's Marine Biodiversity Unit and an author of the paper.

"Hagfish are a great example of one of those 'not-so-cute' species that play a vital role in ecosystem health," says Cristiane Elfes, Programme Officer for the CI-IUCN Biodiversity Assessment Unit. "This study highlights the impact we have on hagfish and the importance of protecting them to maintain the stability of ocean ecosystems."


Notes to editors

Spokespeople available for interviews:

Landon Knapp
Research Assistant
Old Dominion University
Lknap003@odu.edu

Heather Harwell
Post-Doctoral Research Associate
Global Marine Species Assessment
IUCN Global Species Programme
hharwell@odu.edu

Cristiane Elfes
Programme Officer
CI-IUCN Biodiversity Assessment Unit
celfes@conservation.org


For high resolution photos

Please contact kathryn.pintus@iucn.org


For copies of the scientific study

Copies of the paper Conservation status of the world's hagfish species and the loss of phylogenetic diversity and ecosystem function may be obtained from:

Ben Norman
Lifesciencenews@wiley.com
t +44 (0) 1243 770 375


TOTAL HAGFISH SPECIES ASSESSED
= 76

Extinct = 0
Extinct in the Wild = 0
Critically Endangered = 1
Endangered = 2
Vulnerable = 6
Near Threatened = 2
Data Deficient = 30
Least Concern = 35

*For those groups that have been comprehensively assessed on the IUCN Red List, the percentage of threatened species can be calculated, but the actual number of threatened species is often uncertain because it is not known whether Data Deficient (DD) species are actually threatened or not. Therefore, the percentage presented above provides the best estimate of extinction risk for this group (excluding Extinct species), based on the assumption that Data Deficient (DD) species are equally threatened as data sufficient species. In other words, this is a mid-point figure within a range from x% threatened species (if all DD species are not threatened) to y% threatened species (if all DD species are threatened). Available evidence indicates that this is a best estimate.

For example, for hagfishes, 20 percent of species (excluding DD species) are threatened, although the precise figure is uncertain and could lie between 12 percent (if all DD species are not threatened) and 51 percent (if all DD species are threatened).


The hagfish assessments

The hagfish assessments are a part of the Global Marine Species Assessment's mission to complete more than 20,000 marine species assessments for inclusion on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Global Marine Species Assessment Unit (GMSA), or Marine Biodiversity Unit, is a joint initiative of IUCN and Conservation International. The GMSA is headquartered in the Department of Biology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and is largely enabled by the generous support of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and Tom Haas.

Complete results of the hagfish species assessments are published on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org).


The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (or the IUCN Red List) is the world's most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant, fungi and animal species. It is based on an objective system for assessing the risk of extinction of a species should no conservation action be taken.

Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trend, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as 'Threatened'.

The IUCN Red List is not just a register of names and associated threat categories. It is a rich compendium of information on the threats to the species, their ecological requirements, where they live, and information on conservation actions that can be used to reduce or prevent extinctions.

The IUCN Red List is a joint effort between IUCN and its Species Survival Commission, working with its Red List partners BirdLife International; Botanic Gardens Conservation International; Conservation International; NatureServe; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Sapienza University of Rome; Texas A&M University; Wildscreen; and Zoological Society of London.
www.iucnredlist.org


The IUCN Red List threat categories

The IUCN Red List threat categories are as follows, in descending order of threat:

  • Extinct or Extinct in the Wild
  • Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction
  • Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing specific conservation measures
  • Least Concern: species evaluated with a lower risk of extinction
  • Data Deficient: no assessment because of insufficient data
  • Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct): this is not a new IUCN Red List Category, but is a flag developed to identify those Critically Endangered species that are in all probability already Extinct but for which confirmation is required, for example, through more extensive surveys being carried out and failing to find any individuals.


About IUCN
IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges by supporting scientific research; managing field projects all over the world; and bringing governments, NGOs, the UN, international conventions and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice.
The world's oldest and largest global environmental network, IUCN is a democratic membership union with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists and experts in some 160 countries. IUCN's work is supported by over 1,000 professional staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world. IUCN's headquarters are located in Gland, near Geneva, in Switzerland.
www.iucn.org IUCN on Facebook IUCN on Twitter

About the Species Survival Commission
The Species Survival Commission (SSC) is the largest of IUCN's six volunteer commissions with a global membership of around 7500 experts. SSC advises IUCN and its members on the wide range of technical and scientific aspects of species conservation, and is dedicated to securing a future for biodiversity. SSC has significant input into the international agreements dealing with biodiversity conservation.
www.iucn.org/species

About Conservation International
Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, Conservation International empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the long term well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI has headquarters in the Washington, DC area, and nearly 900 employees working in more than 30 countries on four continents, plus 1,000+ partners around the world. For more information, visit www.conservation.org and follow us on Twitter: @ConservationOrg or Facebook: www.facebook.com/conservation.intl

About Old Dominion University
Old Dominion University is Virginia's forward-focused, public doctoral research university for high-performing students from around the world. The university has 26 research centers and a total enrollment of 24,000 students.
http://www.odu.edu

About Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
Founded in 1920, the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) is one of the largest public universities in Brazil, with 139 courses offered by 29 academic units distributed in two campuses located in Rio de Janeiro and Macaé. About 36,000 students are enrolled on education, research, and extension projects through scientific, artistic and cultural activities. For more information, visit http://www.ufrj.br.