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Saving Endangered Oceanic Whitetip Sharks from Extinction

Oceanic whitetip sharks were once the most common pelagic shark throughout the world, but their numbers have suffered a sharp declined due to overfishing in a mere 30 years. This decline is a result of accidental bycatch from tuna fisheries as well as the direct targeting of the species due to the high value of their large fins to make the luxury dish shark fin soup. These charismatic large sharks have a distinctive pattern of mottled white markings on the tips of their fins, earning them their name “whitetip” sharks. This large, pelagic species of shark species name Carcharhinus longimanus translates as “long hands”, not to be confused with the smaller tropical species Triaenodon obeseous, the whitetip reef shark. The high value placed on their fins has led to sharks that were once discarded as bycatch on tuna longlines, many times still alive, being killed for their fins. One of the most threatened sharks, one scientific estimate predicted that less than 10% of the population remains, and as high as 99% of the population have been removed from some seas. As a result of these findings, its status on the IUCN Red List was moved to “Critically Endangered” globally.

Shark finning is the inhumane and unsustainable practice of removing a shark’s fins, often when the shark is alive, and discarding its body back into the ocean. These sharks suffer tremendously, unable to swim properly and profusely bleeding after the removal of their fins, they either suffocate or die from blood loss. Fins from roughly 73 to 100 million sharks each year end up in the global market each year. Although shark finning is illegal, in US fisheries and over 30 other nations, the high value supports a black market for shark fins. Overfishing sharks is a major threat to large pelagic sharks. By ending the fin trade we can introduce one of many safeguards needed to protect these critically important species.

As an early supporter of the US Shark Finning Prohibition (President Clinton 2000) and the subsequent Shark Conservation Act (Obama 2009) banning shark finning in the USA we have helped make the possession of a fin not attached to a body illegal in US fisheries. Shark Stewards has been a leader in the North American shark fin trade ban movement, helping make the shark fin trade illegal in 14 states which have enacted laws that prohibit shark fin trade outright, making it illegal to sell, trade, or possess shark fins within their borders. Despite being illegal in U.S. waters, fins are continuously bought and sold throughout the U.S. and more often than not are sourced from foreign fisheries in countries that lack or have an ineffective finning ban.

In November 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives constructed major move in global shark conservation and passed HR 737 along with its companion Senate bill S 877 to effectively ban the sale and trade of shark fins in the United States. The bill passed through both bodies but Senator Mark Rubio eliminated shark protection from the Federal end of year spending package to the president, terminating its progression. This bill has now been reintroduced as HR 2811 by representatives Sablan and McCaul to pass through congress. The companion bill has been reintroduced by Senator Cory Booker in the Senate as Senate Bill 1260. Eliminating the shark fin trade removes one of the largest impediments to the continued survival of endangered shark species like Oceanic whitetip sharks. You can show your support for the reintroduction of the Federal Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2021 (HR 2811) and (S1206) by signing Shark Stewards petition to the U.S. House of Representatives and US Senate to ban the sale and trade of shark fins in the USA.

Overfishing and habitat loss are the primary sources of endangerment and threat of extinction to over 25 % of species of sharks and rays evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Approximately 50 million sharks die annually as bycatch in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) indiscriminate fisheries. The Oceanic whitetip shark has a particularly late age of maturity, this combined with their low reproductive output means that the species is inherently vulnerable to depletions with a slim chance of recovery. The Oceanic whitetip will quickly become extinct if current fishing management practices are not changed and legal protection is not maintained and enforced. As an apex predator, the Oceanic whitetip plays a crucial role in regulating marine ecosystems.The drastic decline in shark species will inevitably cascade down through the food chain, leading to the loss of additional fish populations.  Shark Steward’s mission is to restore ocean health by saving sharks from overfishing and the shark fin trade, by protecting critical marine habitat through the establishment of marine protected areas and shark sanctuaries, as well as, policy to stop the overfishing of sharks and rays protecting them by federal law.

Shark Stewards is advocating for zero retention of this species in the Pacific, and eliminating harmful gear like gill nets in west coast waters. Join Shark Stewards in the mission of saving endangered sharks and rays, like the Oceanic whitetip, and restoring ocean health by volunteering or donating to Shark Stewards. Proceeds go directly towards protecting sharks from overfishing and the shark fin trade in North America and in Southeast Asia. With your support, you can help us save these lone wolves of the sea.

Emily Anderson

Emily Anderson is a recent graduate in the Biological Sciences at Arizona State University and a volunteer on the Shark Stewards Science and Education Team.