Oceana bites back at proposed rule for US dusky shark conservation

Published on
October 19, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration have released a proposal addressing the chronic overfishing of dusky sharks in U.S. waters. But suggested rule comes up short on its objective, according to marine conservation group Oceana.

Oceana, which sued the federal government in 2015 in a challenge to its policies on dusky sharks,  has deemed the proposed rule as “grossly inadequate,” and charged that that the National Marine Fisheries Service fails to offer measurable means to stop dusky shark decline and facilitate the species’ recovery.

Over the past two decades, dusky shark populations across the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have dropped by 65 percent as a result of bycatch and overfishing, said Oceana. Because the species is slow to grow and reproduces at low rates, recent studies suggest that the population would need between 70 and 180 years to recover. Between 2006 and 2010, almost 4,000 dusky sharks were caught annually in fishing gear meant to catch other species such as grouper, snapper, swordfish and other sharks, the NGO noted, with as many as 80 percent perishing by the time the fish are hauled in and tossed back overboard.

The public will have 60 days to review and comment on the proposed rule as part of a settlement agreement per Oceana’s lawsuit. A final ruling could come as early as April 2017.

“The science is clear that simply prohibiting the intentional capture of dusky sharks is not enough to bring this top predator back to healthy population levels,” said Andrea Treece, the attorney at Earthjustice, which is representing Oceana in the case. “The law is equally clear that the Fisheries Service has to put a strict limit on – and significantly reduce – the number of dusky sharks that are unintentionally captured and killed in multiple fisheries off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The past 15 years of unsuccessful dusky shark management have demonstrated that ignoring bycatch doesn’t work. It’s time for the agency to address the root of the dusky shark overfishing problem and allow this magnificent species to fill its role at the top of the food chain.”

Oceana’s full statement on the proposed rule, written by campaign director Lora Snyder, further criticizes the federal government's management of dusky shark conservation:

“This is yet another example of the federal government failing to take meaningful action to control the capture and killing of dusky sharks. The proposal released today does not come to grips with the problem, as it fails to even address all the fishing fleets responsible for catching dusky sharks.

The federal government’s new rule fails to show how the proposed regulations would achieve a 35 percent reduction in the catch of dusky sharks, which is necessary to rebuild the stock, as required by law. In fact, the government is ignoring its own science. Based on a recent government stock assessment, any capture of more than 29 adult dusky sharks (7,000 pounds) could undermine the species’ ability to rebuild.

While direct fishing for dusky sharks has been prohibited since 2000, the federal government has never addressed the thousands of dusky sharks that are accidentally caught and killed in fishing gear every year.

So far, the government has focused its efforts on reducing bycatch of dusky sharks in U.S. fisheries for swordfish and tuna. Unfortunately, limiting bycatch in these fisheries alone will not solve the problem, as other fisheries are actually responsible for the majority of dusky shark bycatch.

The evidence is clear about what should be required: strict limits on bycatch in the fisheries where dusky sharks are most vulnerable, specifically in the U.S. reef fish fisheries. Bycatch caps would provide an incentive for fisheries to avoid catching dusky sharks, acting as a backstop to shut down fishing activity as soon as a scientifically-based cap is reached. A bycatch cap would count, limit and account for all of the sharks that are being caught.

The law is clear. When the federal government knows that a fish stock is overfished, it must take evidence-based measures to rebuild that stock and ensure that all catches are accounted for. The federal government must include bycatch caps for all of the fisheries in which dusky sharks are being killed. Accountability is required by the law, and fully-accountable management may be the last chance these beautiful sharks have for a future.

It is long past time for the government to get this species back on track. Unfortunately, this proposal is unlikely to yield any different results than the decades of mismanagement that have gotten us into this situation.

It is imperative that the Obama administration takes its duty to protect these sharks seriously and releases the strongest possible final rule next year, including fishery-specific bycatch caps and management measures to hold each fishery accountable for its catch of dusky sharks.”


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