Sharks Get Porthole Of Opportunity

April 29, 1999

WCS Helps Save Atlantic Sharks; Swordfish Are Next

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) adopted new restrictions this week to help stop overfishing of large coastal sharks in the Atlantic, based in part on scientific studies conducted by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a member of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign.

The rules, part of a sweeping management plan for Atlantic and Gulf Coast fisheries signed into law on April 26, call for major cuts in both commercial and recreational shark-fishing quotas, including a moratorium on 19 shark species considered overfished including longfin mako, Caribbean reef, and dusky sharks. For species not listed, recreational anglers may only keep one shark larger than 4.5 feet per vessel, per day -- in addition to one Atlantic sharpnose shark per person, per day. NMFS also established commercial fishing quotas for porbeagle and blue sharks.

Data compiled by WCS showed that even with such severe restrictions, it will take about 40 years for sharks to rebuild to one-half of their original abundance.

"The shark measures are tough and will cause pain for some time to come, but they are necessary if there is to be any chance of recovering large coastal sharks," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of marine conservation programs for WCS. "The damage that has been done will take decades to undo."

Looking at both basic shark biology and the commercial and recreational landings, WCS found that large coastal sharks are being killed twice as fast as they can reproduce. And, because sharks reproduce just every two to three years for most species and grow slowly, populations are very difficult to recover once depleted. WCS also determined that the federal management plan enacted in 1996 failed to adequately protect sharks.

Last June, after approaching NMFS with these findings, Pikitch was invited as a scientific advisor to submit WCS's plan at a shark recovery workshop. By September, the plan was accepted by NMFS, and adopted as national policy on April 26th.

But Pikitch was quick to note NMFS' failure to enact tougher restrictions for swordfish, which have been dwindling in both size and number for more than two decades. According to Pikitch, NMFS failed to take meaningful steps to rebuild the depleted swordfish stock.

"The U.S. has a real opportunity to be a world leader in swordfish conservation by committing to an effective swordfish recovery program in the international arena, including quota cuts," Pikitch said. This is our best hope for restoring both the health of swordfish stocks and the viability of the U.S. swordfishing industry."

The Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a coalition of six conservation groups working to protect "ocean giants," such as sharks, tunas and billfish, from overfishing.

Photos available on-line:

Wildlife Conservation Society

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