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Finning Endangers Whitetips, Greens Say

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service announced that a Defenders of Wildlife petition to list the whitetip shark as endangered or threatened has merit. The National Marine Fisheries Service said that it determined in the 90-day petition finding, published Tuesday, that the petition they received on Sept. 21, 2015, contains substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing the whitetips as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act could be warranted.

"Defenders of Wildlife is encouraged that NMFS has made this positive finding, which is the first step towards the legal protections this imperiled shark species so desperately needs. The oceanic whitetip, like so many other shark species, has suffered significant population declines from direct fishing, particularly for the unsustainable shark fin trade, as well as from bycatch in other fisheries, which is usually lethal to the whitetip. Like other shark species, oceanic whitetips are slow-reproducing top predators that are vital to healthy ocean ecosystems," Jane Davenport, Senior Staff Attorney for the conservation group told Courthouse News.

The petition noted that the iconic sharks, easily identified due to their distinctive white-tipped fins, are extensively caught as bycatch in many commercial fisheries, and face further threats from chemical pollution, disease and inadequate regulatory controls, in addition to the continuing and highly controversial practice of finning (cutting the fins off live sharks and throwing them back into the ocean to die). Shark fins are prized in the international market, and are used to make shark fin soup. They are valued at $20-$40 per pound, the agency said.

These sharks are large, over 11 feet long and weigh around 500 pounds, according to the agency's fact sheet. They do not reach reproductive maturity until they are four to seven years of age, and typically give birth only every two years to a small litter of live pups. These "life-history characteristics and limited ability to recover from fishing pressure make the species particularly vulnerable to overexploitation," the petition noted.

"This was once the most abundant shark species on the planet, but due to bycatch and the finning industry, has had its global population reduced by at least 70 percent, with a 98 percent loss in the Mediterranean," the Defenders of Wildlife (DoW) said in their fact sheet.

Oceanic whitetip sharks are found globally in warm tropical and subtropical surface waters in the open ocean. They are a pelagic species, meaning they are not typically found close to shore.

These oceanic sharks are primarily caught in tuna and swordfish fisheries using pelagic longlines and purse seines, and may also be found in pelagic gillnets, handlines and trawls, the agency said.

"At least 21 countries, the European Union, the Organización del Sector Pesquero y Acuícola del Istmo Centroamericano, and nine Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RMFOs), including ICCAT in 2004, the IOTC in 2005, the IATTC in 2005, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna in 2008, and the WCPFC in 2010, have implemented shark finning bans," the DoW said in their petition. "However, the strict enforcement that is necessary for these measures to be effective is often lacking, thus hampering the efficacy of these bans. Also, where RFMOs or international or regional agreements are concerned, implementation of the bans is often not mandatory or enforceable, leading to continued finning even where a ban is in place."

At this time, NOAA's fisheries service begins a status review of the oceanic whitetip shark range-wide in response to the petition finding, and it requests scientific and commercial information regarding the species by March 14.

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