US Adds Overfishing Protections for 6 Shark Species

Photo credit: Johan Fredriksson

(CN) – Six South American shark-family species that have been overfished are now listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced.

The listing action was prompted by a 2013 petition from the WildEarth Guardians conservation group to list 81 marine species under the ESA. Of those 81 species, the agency determined that 27 species merited further study for possible listing, then addressed those species according to taxonomic groupings. The species considered in this group are all elasmobranchs, meaning they have cartilaginous tissues instead of bones, a feature found in sharks, rays and skates.

“Our oceans and the species that call them home are suffering because of relentless human overexploitation,” Stuart Wilcox, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians and author of the listing petition, said. “Protecting these declining species is an important step in taking responsibility for the failing health of marine ecosystems.”

One significant change in the final listing regulation from the agency’s 2015 listing proposal, is that originally only the daggernose shark, Brazilian guitarfish, striped smoothhound shark and the Argentine angelshark were proposed for endangered listing status, while the narrownose smoothhound shark and the spiny angelshark were proposed for threatened status. The agency, after considering new information and comments submitted in response to the proposal, has now decided that the spiny angelshark also merits an endangered listing status due to “current fishing mortality rates 65 percent higher than what would attain maximum sustainable yield,” the agency noted.

“Overutilization of the foreign elasmobranchs is due to a combination of intense artisanal and industrial fishing targeting these species, as well as fishing that targets other species, but sometimes catches these elasmobranchs unintentionally. Given their sensitive life history traits, these elasmobranchs cannot sustain current fishing mortality rates,” Margaret Miller, NMFS’ Natural Resource Management Specialist, said.

Many sharks and shark-family species are long-lived species that are slow to mature to reproductive age and have low reproductive rates. These species’ characteristics make it hard for the fish to recover from intense fishing pressure. The narrownose smoothhound shark has a slightly better reproductive recovery rate than the other species listed in the action, contributing to its listing as threatened rather than endangered. The terms “endangered” and “threatened,” as used under the ESA, are distinguished by time. Endangered species face imminent extinction, threatened species face extinction in the foreseeable future.

World-wide, many shark species, such as hammerheads and whitetips, and shark-family species such as guitarfish, are experiencing serious population declines due to the fishing practice known as finning, where the fins are removed and the animal is thrown back into the water to die. Shark fins are in high demand in Asian markets for shark fin soup. Fins command very high prices, up to $85 per kilogram in Hong Kong. While there was one instance of finning cited for one of these newly listed species, the main threat is overfishing due to a lack of fishing regulation to protect the stocks.

“Not all sharks are targeted for the shark fin trade. The foreign elasmobranch species subject to the final rule are generally much smaller species than those prized for the fin trade. Our reviews found no evidence to suggest that these species are targeted for the fin trade,” Miller said.

Because the six newly listed species are found in the coastal waters off South America, mainly around Argentina and Brazil, and are not found in U.S. waters, the agency will not make a determination for critical habitat, as it would for species over which it has jurisdiction. However, “recognition of the species’ imperiled status through listing promotes conservation actions by federal and state agencies, foreign entities, private groups, and individuals,” the agency noted. Indeed, the Embassy of the Argentine Republic provided information and comments in response to the listing proposal. Listing also affects trade and importation of products made from foreign species in the United States.

“Protection under the ESA is an effective safety net for imperiled species. More than 99 percent of plants and animals protected by the law exist today. The law is especially important as a defense against the current extinction crisis. Species are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities. Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct by 2006 if not for ESA protections. Listing species with global distributions can protect them from trade and help focus U.S. resources toward enforcement of international regulations and recovery of the species,” the WildEarth Guardians said in their response to the final listings.

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