The Kahu Manō -Urgent Action to Save Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

Deadsharks

Shark Stewards is petitioning Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and Fisheries Management Commissions and NOAA National Marine Fisheries to reduce catch, retention and bycatch of critically endangered oceanic whitetip sharks. One focus is to swap longline gear in tuna fisheries to protect endangered oceanic sharks following the example of Hawai’i and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Management Commission. The Hawaii Longline Association fisheries managers have set a precedent by agreeing to swap out wire leaders for monofilament, allowing captured sharks to release themselves thereby reducing bycatch significantly. We are now urging the Inter- American Tropical Tuna Coalition (IATTC) to follow suit and eliminate take and bycatch of critically endangered pelagic sharks through substitution of wire leaders in Pacific fisheries in the Eastern Pacific.

In 2023 Shark Stewards supported a Proposed Rule providing comments for zero retention and trade of critically endangered oceanic whitetip sharks. The rule: Retention Prohibition of Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in U.S. Atlantic Waters and Hammerhead Sharks in the U.S. Caribbean Sea.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency (NOAA Fisheries) announced the proposed rule in 2023 to consider prohibiting the commercial and recreational retention of oceanic whitetip sharks in U.S. waters of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, and all hammerhead sharks in the large coastal shark complex in the U.S. Caribbean region. The proposed rule would add oceanic whitetip sharks to the prohibited shark species group and prohibit the commercial and recreational retention of great, smooth, and scalloped hammerhead sharks in the U.S. Caribbean region.

Shark Stewards submitted written comments in support of zero retention and swapping longline gear in RFMOS to protect endangered oceanic sharks following the example of Hawai’i and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Management Commission. These fisheries managers have agreed to swap out wire leaders for monofilament, allowing caught sharks to release themselves thereby reducing bycatch significantly. Additional recommendations to use galvanized hooks and circle hooks are under advisement and under evaluation by NMFS. More comprehensive observer coverage onboard fioshing vessels is also recommended and under consideration by RFMOSs, including employing new technologies allowing remote observer coverage of catch and bycatch on pelagic fleets.

NMFS anticipates that a proposed rule and draft environment impact statement (DEIS) for the to the five Atlantic Regional Fishery Management Councils (the New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Fishery Management Councils) and the Atlantic and Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commissions will be available in 2024 and the Final Amendment 16 and its related documents will be available in 2025.

In recent years, these sharks have faced significant threats from overfishing, bycatch, and habitat degradation. Efforts to protect them, such as through conservation measures, regulations, and the establishment of marine reserves, are essential for ensuring the survival and well-being of oceanic whitetip sharks and the overall health of our oceans.

These sharks, once the most abundant marine vertebrate species, have declined dramatically in the last 50 years. They are extirpated in much of their range, and have lost 90-95% of their original pre-fishing populations. With extremely high bycatch on longlines, the fins from oceanic whitetip sharks are highly coveted in Asia, representing 6% of the Hong Kong trade in one evaluation, despite CITES protection.

We call on the National Marine Fisheries Service to lead the world in increased protection for OWTs through zero retention and gear changes in the NE Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean Tuna Fisheries.

 Shark Stewards is submitting written comments in support of this proposed rule to protect endangered oceanic sharks and will be attending RFMO meetings in the NE Pacific and Atlantic in 2024 to extend protections gained in the central and western Pacific for these critically endangered sharks.

Rule Passed by NOAA for Zero Retention.

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NOAA Fisheries announces a proposed rule to consider prohibiting the commercial and recreational retention of oceanic whitetip sharks in U.S. waters of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, and all hammerhead sharks in the large coastal shark (LCS) complex (great, smooth, and scalloped hammerhead sharks) in the U.S. Caribbean region.

Under the proposed rule, NOAA Fisheries would add oceanic whitetip sharks to the prohibited shark species group (effective in U.S. waters of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea) and prohibit the commercial and recreational retention of LCS hammerhead sharks (great, smooth, and scalloped hammerhead sharks) in the U.S. Caribbean region.

Endangered Species Act Protection

Additionally, led by a lawsuit by Defenders of Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries to list threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Implemented March 1, 2018, the rule calls for increased protection. NOAA did not onclude that critical habitat is determinable because data sufficient to perform the required analyses are lacking. Since that time additional information on habitat features and areas in U.S. waters (particularly Hawaii) may meet the definition of critical habitat for the oceanic whitetip shark.

In 2023, a request to NOAA for increased protection under rule 4(d) of the ESA was introduced based on additional knowledge. We are seeking additional protection for these sharks under the ESA. The public has the right to comment in support of this petition in July 2024.

Oceanic whitetip sharks are critically endangered. Although protected from the international shark fin trade by a early under CITES (below), catch, bycatch, and the fin trade are still occurring. Gear changes, increased fisheries management and trade restrictions are necessary to save these important species from extinction.

CITES PROTECTION

In 2003 Oceanic whitetip sharks were listed in CITES Appendix II. CITES is a global treaty to ensure international trade in wild plants and animals is legal, traceable, and biologically sustainable. Although it is one of the most widespread shark species, found throughout the world’s tropical and temperate seas, Oceanic whitetip sharks is also one of the most threatened.

CITES Appendix II aims to ensure trade in these species is both legal and sustainable. However, the oceanic whitetip is prohibited in all RMFOs where it occurs and CITES Appendix II listed, yet its incidence in the dried fin trade is still relatively high at 6.6% as reported in a 2022 study by Cardenosa et. al.

Assessments of oceanic whitetip populations at that time indicated that stocks had declined by 99% in the Gulf of Mexico, over 70% in the northwest Atlantic and 90% in the Pacific Ocean. They are assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered in the northwest and western central Atlantic Ocean and as vulnerable globally. In 2024, the figures are even more dire, with only 2% of the population remaining as reported by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Listing this species as critically endangered in global population is estimated to have undergone a reduction of >98%, with the highest probability of >80% reduction over three generation lengths (61.2 years).

However, bycatch and their continued evidence in the shark fin trade is leading to population decline. With a consortium of scientists, managers and non profits Shark Stewards is pursuing the highest level of protection under CITES Appendix I at the Conference of the Parties, CoP20 in 2025.

CITES Appendix I is essentially a ban on international trade providing the highest protection from trade of of bodies, or parts including shark fins, organs, jaws and teeth.

About Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

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’s name (Carcharhinus longimanus) translates as “long hands”, not to be confused with the smaller tropical species (Triaenodon obeseous), the whitetip reef shark. These sharks were once the most commonly caught accidentally in longline fisheries, but the low value of their meat led to discarding dead, or sometimes still breathing. The high value placed on their fins has led to more sharks landed, or the body discarded and the fins retained. Now one of the most threatened sharks, one scientific estimate predicted that less than 5% of the global 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.

Help save these sharks from extinction.

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