Thursday, November 27, 2014


Sharks are living in interesting times.

Few fish in the ocean mature more slowly or produce as few young, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

None have been as historically feared and reviled.

And perhaps none have received quite as much attention, on a worldwide basis, in 2014.

The scalloped hammerhead, along with the closely related great and smooth hammerheads, the oceanic whitetip and the porbeagle shark were listed under Appendix II of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  Such listing will require that, for the first time, any international shipments of meat or other parts of such species must be accompanied by permits and certificates attesting that the sharks were taken as part of a sustainable and legal harvest.

That’s all good news, but all of the news is not good.

A number of important shark-fishing nations, including Japan, Denmark, Canada, Iceland and Yemen, entered a “reservation” to the CITES listing, meaning that they will not be bound by the documentation requirements or other restrictions imposed by the treaty.

We can only surmise why a nation would oppose a requirement that its sharks be sustainably and legally caught…

It doesn’t make sense, because as noted above, sharks are probably more easily harmed by overfishing than any of the other species managed by ICCAT.

Both the shortfin mako and the porbeagle swim off the U.S. coast.  They belong to the family Lamnidae, commonly known as “mackerel sharks”; as that name suggests, they are open-ocean predators that feed mainly on fish.

Of the two, the sleek, cobalt-blue mako is by far the better known.  It is the primary target of recreational shark fishermen in the New England and upper mid-Atlantic states, both because of its flashy and aggressive fight—there is something savagely beautiful about a 400-pound-plus fish cartwheeling a dozen feet into the air almost within touching distance, and something that makes your breath catch, just for a moment, as you wonder whether it will crash back into the water or land, vital and angry, next to you inside the boat—and because of its flavorful meat.

That meat also makes the mako a valuable commercial catch.  As a result of decades of fishing pressure, ICCAT scientists believe that the North Atlantic population has declined since 1970.  Although the species is not believed to be overfished, and overfishing may or may not be occurring (depending on the model that scientists use), the scientific panel’s recommendation to ICCAT is that

“Taking into consideration results from the modeling approaches used in the assessment, the associated uncertainty, and the relatively low productivity of shortfin mako sharks, the Working Group recommends, as a precautionary approach, that the fishing mortality of shortfin mako sharks should not be increased until more reliable stock assessment results are available for both the northern and southern stocks.”

How an increase in fishing mortality can be prevented without an internationally-recognized quota isn’t completely clear, but despite that, ICCAT rejected such quota a few weeks ago.

Porbeagles present an even more compelling case for firm international quotas.

Superficially, a porbeagle looks a lot like a chunky mako, and the ranges of the fish do overlap, but porbeagles generally prefer colder water.  They are, or at least were, one of the more common sharks on the banks off New England and Canada, although they were also encountered in the mid-Atlantic region.

The late Capt. Frank Mundus of Montauk, NY devoted an entire chapter to porbeagles in his book Sportfishing for Sharks, which was first published in 1969.  In that chapter, he noted that

“When porbeagles show there are respectable numbers of 200- and 300-pounders.  You shouldn’t have trouble latching onto some of these…
“In numbers, porbeagles exceed makos and maneaters [i.e., great whites] and they appear to have a greater tendency to group more than most other sharks.  In that respect they may be second only to the blues.  When they’re visiting a region therefore, it’s possible to contact them with frequency.  The Cricket II [Mundus’ charter boat] has docked with as many as six or eight caught during a single sailing.”
Yet, although I’ve been an active shark fishermen for nearly 40 years, fishing off Rhode Island, Montauk and the South Shore of Long Island—waters close to, and in some cases identical to, those fished by Capt. Mundus—the porbeagle is the only local shark that I have not caught or, at least (in the case of great whites), have seen at close range in my chum slick.

A lot of the blame for that can be placed squarely at the feet of the Norwegian longline fleet which, beginning in 1961, engaged in a directed porbeagle fishery off Canada and New England.  

The Norwegians overfished the porbeagles so badly that the entire fishery collapsed in only six years.

The Norwegian longliners left long ago, but they took most of the porbeagles with them; the shark has never recovered from their onslaught.  However, it is still caught as bycatch in the pelagic longline fishery, and is targeted in a Canadian porbeagle fishery that, in recent years, has landed less than 100 metric tons per year.

ICCAT scientists have found that the Northwest Atlantic stock—the one that swims off American shores—is overfished, although overfishing is not currently occurring.  The Northeast Atlantic stock, which is taken off Europe, is in even worse condition.

“High-seas fisheries should not target porbeagle…
“Increased effort on the high seas within the stock area could compromise stock recovery efforts.”
But, once again, ICCAT has refused to adopt a quota that would compel fishing nations to avoid such an increase.

There are quotas.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan includes both makos and porbeagles, along with blue sharks and threshers, in the “Pelagic” shark category.  Shortfin makos and common threshers are part of the general “Pelagic” commercial quota of 273 metric tons (dressed weight).  In recognition of the porbeagle’s precarious status, NMFS has given that species a separate commercial quota of just 1.7 metric tons.

Yet there are some folks who believe that even that low quota provides insufficient protection.

In 2011, two organizations, the Humane Society of the United States and Wild Earth Guardians, filed petitions with the National Marine Fisheries Service, requesting that the Northwest Atlantic stock of porbeagle sharks be listed under the Endangered Species Act.  The law required NMFS to determine, within 90 days after receiving the petition, whether there was sufficient evidence that such listing might be justified, in which case a more comprehensive listing proceeding would begin.

NMFS denied the petition, and the organizations sued.  Their lawsuits were consolidated into a single case, Humane Society of the United States v. Pritzker.

Just two weeks ago, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia handed down its decision, in which it found that

A 90-day determination under the Endangered Species Act constitutes a ‘threshold determination,’ and Plaintiffs need only provide ‘that amount of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted.’  While the Court must give APA deference to NMFS's determination regarding whether Plaintiffs have met this low evidentiary bar, the Court nevertheless has found that Defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously in applying an incorrectly stringent evidentiary standard at the 90-day finding stage.
At this point, it’s impossible to say whether NMFS will ultimately decide that a listing is warranted, and it’s impossible to say whether such listing would be a good thing.

But what is perfectly clear is that, of all of the highly migratory species managed on an international scale, sharks get the least attention and the least protection.

That needs to change.

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