Sharks get new protections amid severe declines; bluefin tuna safeguards rejected

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
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 9:37 PM

International delegates Saturday adopted new protections for seven species of shark in the Atlantic Ocean but rejected restrictions for bluefin tuna and swordfish, leaving the future of some of the world's most imperiled marine predators uncertain.

On the last day of voting at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the group agreed to ban the fishing and sale of oceanic whitetip sharks and six types of hammerheads: great, scalloped, scoophead, smalleye, smooth and whitefin. The fins from both of these shark species are used to make the Asian delicacy shark's-fin soup.

Populations of oceanic whitetip shark have declined 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, while hammerheads' numbers have dropped 99 percent in the Mediterranean.

While putting a ban on fishing for some sharks, the representatives declined to significantly cut back on the catch of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna off Europe or shut down the tuna's spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean. Scientists warn that the species is now in danger of becoming commercially extinct because it is so highly valued in Japan and other nations for its buttery flesh.

They reduced the tuna's 2011 fishing quota in the eastern Atlantic, close to Europe, by just 4 percent, to 12,900 metric tons, and in the western Atlantic, they cut it from 1,800 to 1,750 metric tons for next year.

Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for the advocacy group Oceana, said that the nearly two-week-long meeting in Paris produced a few environmental victories, "but it's three years late and three dollars short."

"Considering the status of the species that they're supposed to be conserving, they're still nowhere," Hirshfield said in a phone interview from Paris.

Matt Rand, who directs global shark conservation for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, said in a phone interview from Paris the decisions show that policymakers are responding to the criticism they received this spring after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora failed to adopt a single measure restricting the global trade of species such as oceanic whitetip and various types of hammerhead.

Rand said the votes demonstrate "fisheries managers around the world are paying attention to shark issues," although he added that it still means only a tiny fraction of the sharks that swim in the Atlantic now are protected from fishing vessels.

"It's a good step forward but far short of what is needed to save the world's sharks," Rand said.

While some sharks are hunted for their fins, others are caught for their meat or, most commonly, are killed as "bycatch" by fishermen going after tuna and swordfish.

Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at the advocacy group Oceana, noted that last year ICCAT prohibited only the fishing, retention and sale of a single shark species, big-eye thresher.

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