Migratory sharks face intense fishing pressure

New scientific evidence suggests that a growing number of creatures could disappear from the earth. One-fifth of the vertebrates and as many as a third of all sharks and rays are now threatened with extinction.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 8:26 PM

Putting a number on Atlantic shark fishing for the first time, an advocacy group reported that more than 1.3 million migratory sharks were caught in 2008, a finding that activists are using to press for international catch limits.

The main catches - blue sharks and short-fin makos - are not endangered, but most other migratory sharks caught in the Atlantic are classified as threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Oceana released the new report Monday as negotiators from four dozen countries are meeting in Paris to consider fishing restrictions for a range of marine species that travel in the Atlantic, including sharks, bluefin tuna and sea turtles. The meeting, known as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, started last week and will conclude Saturday.

For years ICCAT officials have resisted placing severe restrictions on a range of species, including bluefin tuna, which is highly prized in Japan. This year the United States is again lobbying to cut the amount of bluefin caught in the western and eastern Atlantic, which has declined precipitously from overfishing, as well as measures aimed to curb the total catch of sharks and sea turtles.

Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, traveled to Paris last week to make the case for fishing restrictions with several of her counterparts. In an interview Saturday, Lubchenco called 2010 "a pivotal year" for the commission.

"It's time for ICCAT to demonstrate it can make tough decisions based on science, and when there are uncertainties in science, to err on the side of caution," she said. "It remains to be seen how tough, in the end, the decisions will be."

The "total allowable catch" of bluefin tuna was set at 13,500 metric tons for this year, a number that is higher than what scientists say is sustainable. The United States will propose reducing that number and will also offer proposals that would require sharks to be landed with their fins attached; specify how many short-fin mako sharks can be caught; and guard against the accidental catch of sea turtles.

But in a sign of how much resistance there is to cutting the catch of commercial species, the European Union Council last week rejected the recommendation of E.U. fishing chief Maria Damanaki to cut the 2011 bluefin tuna quota by more than half.

Sue Lieberman, deputy director of the Pew Environment Group, an advocacy group, said she hoped influential E.U. members such as France and Spain will rethink their position and push for bolder measures, such as suspending fishing in the eastern Atlantic and in the tuna's spawning grounds in the western Atlantic, such as the Gulf of Mexico.

"If ICCAT fails this week to take meaningful action, and adopts a 'business as usual' outcome, that would mean they have ignored science, ignored all the evidence of continued fraud, illegal fishing, and laundering in the Mediterranean, and ignored the wishes of their own citizens," Lieberman wrote in an e-mail.

Some environmentalists predicted that the mounting evidence of how many shark species are threatened with extinction would spur delegates to act.

"You're talking about an enormous number of sharks being caught with absolutely no fisheries management," said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, in a phone interview from Paris. "These animals really do need more protection, and they're clearly not getting any."

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 72 shark species qualify as "highly migratory" and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of the tuna commission.

Oceana based its analysis on the 37 member countries who reported shark catches in 2008 totaling more than 65,000 metric tons. Based on the average weight of the 21 different shark species that were caught, the group estimated that 1,042,942 blue sharks were brought in, along with 84,190 short-fin makos.

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