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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Conservationists sue feds over failure to protect West Coast tope sharks

Environmentalists claim that the National Marine Fisheries Service delayed making a decision on the sharks' protections for over two years.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) —  Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday morning against the National Marine Fisheries Service for missing its deadline to determine if the tope shark, also known as the soupfin shark, warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The conservation groups hope that listing the tope shark under the act will trigger habitat protections and a review of fishing practices that could aid in the species' recovery.

The service had initially announced in April 2022 that the tope shark might need protection, but the decision has yet to be made, despite a legal obligation to decide by February 2023.

The tope shark, which inhabits the waters off California, Oregon and Washington, is facing a critical threat due to specific targeting by commercial fishing for its liver oil — which had been historically used for cosmetics production and is now used in the biofuel industry — its meat and its fins, which are considered a delicacy.

It also faces threats from bycatch and entanglement in Mexico's gillnets, particularly off the coast of Southern California. These gillnets — fishing traps that are hung vertically, trapping fish by their gills — have contributed to the decline of the tope shark populations, which, according to the center, has plummeted by nearly 90% over the past 80 years.

“Tope sharks are vanishing very quickly, so they can’t wait until federal officials find it convenient to act. They need protections now. We’ve been watching for years as these sharks are hunted for fins and meat and killed by fishing gear entanglements," David Derrick, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. "The federal government already acknowledged that these sharks need help, and it’s time to stop their population plunge with Endangered Species Act safeguards.”

The lawsuit follows a February 2022 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Defend Them All Foundation that sought to protect the tope shark under the act.

In addition to protection under the the act, the conservation groups calls for the designation of critical habitats essential for the tope shark's survival and recovery, particularly its breeding sites along the West Coast.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature already categorizes the tope shark as critically endangered due to commercial overfishing, as well as bycatch and habitat degradation. Despite this, the United States has yet to develop a stock assessment or fishery management plan for the species, according to the center.

“Relentless overexploitation, habitat degradation, inadequate regulatory mechanisms, and other manmade factors, including contaminants, are pushing the tope shark closer to extinction every day. Federal protection will give this important top predator a fighting chance and must be prioritized,” Lindsey Zehel, an attorney for Defend Them All, said in a statement.

The tope shark can grow up to 6.5 feet long and nearly 100 pounds and has a lifespan of up to 60 years but matures late, around 12.5 years of age on average. The shark is found in temperate, shallow waters along coastlines worldwide, including North America, Australia and the Mediterranean. 

The shark gathers in five zones along the West Coast stretching from along California, including San Francisco Bay, and up to Washington and Oregon.

Categories / Courts, Environment, Government

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