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

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.

In addition to approving the new restrictions, delegates adopted a measure penalizing any member country that does not submit data on its catch of shortfin mako sharks by 2013. Those nations will be prohibited in the future from fishing shortfin makos, which are second only to blue sharks in terms of the total number caught in the Atlantic.

The delegates also included some small exceptions in the restrictions they adopted. The catch of bonnethead sharks, a type of hammerhead, will still be allowed in the Atlantic, as will fishing by coastal communities for hammerhead sharks intended for eating.

Countries from across the ideological spectrum backed different shark-specific measures. The United States offered the proposal on shortfin makos, while the European Union and Brazil joined forces to push for limits on hammerheads. Japan, which has often resisted limits on shark fishing, offered the ban on catching oceanic whitetips.

Some countries managed to defeat additional shark protections at the request of commercial interests. Canada, which has a targeted porbeagle shark fishery, helped block an E.U. proposal to ban the catch of that species, which has declined by more than 50 percent in much of the Atlantic. Japan, South Korea and China all opposed specific catch limits on shortfin makos. Meanwhile, a U.S. proposal to prohibit the removal of shark fins at sea - aimed at curtailing fishing for the shark-fin market - failed after Japan objected.

Obama officials put a more positive spin on the meeting's results. While Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the United States "met with mixed success" at the session, Russell F. Smith III, deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries, said in a statement, "The United States succeeded in protecting the gains in conservation we achieved last year while making significant progress in other areas."

Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, said international fisheries managers need "to build upon this progress" with complementary protections elsewhere in the sea, along with stiffer measures next year.

While delegates did little to curtail the catch of bluefin tuna on either side of the Atlantic, they did vote to enforce "payback" measures on countries that exceed their yearly bluefin tuna fishing quotas. In the future, the catch allowed for those nations would be reduced by a commensurate level the following year.

The commission also required that countries report on how many sea turtles they catch in the Atlantic and to use hook-removal and fishing line disentanglement gear, which could save tens of thousands of sea turtles that are accidentally caught. Scientists estimate that between 240,000 and 350,000 sea turtles are caught in longline fisheries in the Atlantic and Mediterranean each year.

Delegates failed to fulfill their pledge to establish a comprehensive management plan for swordfish in the Mediterranean, a population that has also declined significantly in the past 20 years.

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