WASHINGTON (CN) — Overfishing and finning of whitetip sharks have reduced the species population by as much as 90 percent in some areas, the National Marine Fisheries Service says, and it wants the species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
International demand for shark fins is the main “economic force driving the retention and subsequent finning of oceanic whitetip sharks taken as bycatch in commercial fisheries worldwide,” the NMFS wrote in its listing proposal.
Finning is the controversial practice of cutting fins off live sharks and throwing them back into the ocean to die.
Shark fins, served as shark fin soup, command high prices in the international market, up to the U.S. equivalent of $45 to $85 per kilogram in Hong Kong, the world’s largest market for shark fins.
Because the whitetip has larger fins than most other sharks, it is a “preferred species” and the “first choice” in Hong Kong.
The NMFS estimates that 700,000 whitefin sharks are traded for their fins each year. Because they take four to seven years to become reproductively mature and typically give birth to small litters only every other year, its ability to recover from heavy fishing pressure is limited, according to the Defenders of Wildlife petition that spurred the listing proposal.
Whitetips once were among the most abundant shark species, but “declines in oceanic whitetip shark abundance range from 86 to greater than 90 percent in some areas of the Pacific Ocean (with declines observed across the entire basin), and between 57 – 88 percent in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico,” according to the NMFS status report, which was initiated after it found the Defenders’ petition warranted study.
Oceanic whitetip sharks are frequently caught as bycatch. They show up in longlines, purse seine nets, gillnets, trawls and handlines.
“We’ve already lost at least 70 percent of these sharks across the globe. If we don’t take immediate action, they could be wiped right off the map,” Defenders of Wildlife senior staff attorney Jane Davenport said in an interview.
The NMFS is a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kate Brogan, with the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, said in an interview that “the main threats to the oceanic whitetip shark identified in the status review are overutilization by fisheries and inadequate regulatory mechanisms, with bycatch, the fin trade, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing identified as significant issues.”
The whitetip is a long-lived species, estimated to live up to 20 years. The largest recorded whitetip was 11½ feet long. Disturbingly, there is evidence that the average size of these sharks is declining in some areas. Maternal length is potentially correlated to litter size. And lack of genetic diversity caused by large declines in population can “lead to reduced fitness and a limited ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment,” the NMFS said.
Other federal regulations, such as the Shark Finning Prohibition Act and the Shark Conservation Act, and international laws aim to curb finning, seafood fraud and IUU fishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources listed the oceanic whitetip shark as a “vulnerable” species with a declining population in 2006. But implementation and enforcement are not always effective. The ocean is a big place.
The whitetip shark is listed under CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
“As a result of reported population declines driven by the trade of oceanic whitetip shark fins, the oceanic whitetip shark was listed under Appendix II of CITES in 2013. This listing went into effect as of September 2014,” Brogan said.
Oceanic whitetip sharks are protected in U.S. waters; retaining them is prohibited in the main fisheries where they are caught: the Northwest Atlantic, and U.S. Pacific Islands and Territories.
The public may comment on the listing proposal until March 29, 2017.
“Oceanic whitetip sharks are a vital part of the marine landscape and are found in all the world’s oceans. This proposal is a step toward making sure they aren’t lost forever for the sake of a delicacy,” Davenport said.