WASHINGTON (CN) - National Marine Fisheries Service has begun a year-long status review to determine if the northeastern Pacific Ocean (NEP) distinct population segment of the great white shark merits protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The great whites in the northeastern Pacific Ocean qualify as a distinct population segment due to genetic differences and population segregation, and because the fish range internationally into waters with differing management regimes, according to two petitions filed by four environmental groups. One petition was submitted by Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards, and the other by WildEarth Guardians.
The federal agency agreed that the species may qualify on the basis of genetic differences and population separation, but not because it crosses international boundaries.
Both petitions cited exploitation by fishing and bycatch as threats, and claimed that lack of regulatory protection, bioaccumulation of contaminants, habitat degradation, and the species' own biological constraints increased the likelihood that the NEP population of white shark would head toward extinction, according to the action.
The WildEarth Guardians' petition stated that, in addition to the direct threat of high levels of contaminants such as mercury, DDT, PCBs, and chlordanes that have been verified through shark sampling, "debris in the North Pacific Gyre (the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch")" may negatively affect offshore habitats, including the area between the North American coast and Hawaii termed the "white shark café" or Shared Offshore Foraging Area (SOFA), identified as a fixed destination for this shark through satellite and acoustic telemetry, the action said. The petition commented that sharks or their prey could eat the plastic garbage, and that persistent organic pollutants that accumulate on the plastic could pose another threat, according to the action. The NMFS noted that it is unclear what the sharks are feeding on in the SOFA, so it would be difficult to evaluate these threats.
The WildEarth petition also mentioned negative media attention as a threat because, when sharks attack humans, the "general paranoia" encourages the "targeting of the species for sport or trophy hunting," the regulation said.
The petition filed by Oceana and others mentioned effects of ocean acidification on the marine food web within the California Current ecosystem, but it conceded that the severity of effects on specific species is uncertain, the action stated.
White sharks, which may grow up to 21 feet long and reach 6,600 pounds, may be susceptible to extinction due to the species' own life history characteristics, such as "slow growth, late maturation, long-life, long generation time, small litter size, and low reproductive capacity," the agency said.
Population estimates have not been available historically, but recent studies indicate the NEP population may be around 340, according to the action.
The NMFS concluded that the possible threats and inadequate regulatory mechanisms for protection warrant a 12-month status review. The agency seeks information and documentation. "White sharks are recognized as apex predators throughout the oceanic and coastal marine environments where they occur, and may play an important role in ecosystem balance and population control for a number of other marine species," the agency noted.
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