In an effort to prevent overfishing of large coastal sharks in US waters, Earthjustice today sued the federal government on behalf of The Ocean Conservancy and National Audubon Society. The plaintiffs charge that the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to halt overfishing and that the agency has failed to rebuild large coastal shark populations in the Atlantic Gulf based on the best available science. The groups also claim that NMFS has short-circuited public participation in fisheries management by illegally eliminating opportunity for comment and allowing key management decisions to be made through secret negotiations and by outside parties.
"Once again, fishery managers have caved to industry pressure and failed to provide vulnerable sharks with the protection that their biology warrants," said Sonja Fordham, shark conservation specialist at The Ocean Conservancy. "Instead of defending its science-based proposals to halt overfishing, the government stifled the citizen's voice in the management of public resources and allowed the future of these imperiled species to be decided behind closed doors."
Slow-growing Atlantic large coastal sharks, including blacktip, sandbar and dusky sharks, have been seriously overfished during recent decades. Based on a 1998 assessment completed by 22 leading shark and fishery science experts, NMFS announced in 1999 a reduction in the shark commercial quota to stop overfishing and begin rebuilding. However, due to shark fishing industry lawsuits, science-based catch levels have never taken effect. In December 2000, rather than defend its decision, NMFS settled an industry lawsuit by agreeing to suspend the quota cuts and subject the 1998 assessment to peer review. In December 2001, after receiving the opinions of the four review panel members, two of whom had no shark expertise, NMFS once again allowed the previous, excessive catches for the 2002 season.
"What is NMFS thinking?" remarked Dr. Merry Camhi, Assistant Director of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program. "There is no question among shark experts that quotas need to be cut and that these animals need more precautionary management. Even the peer reviewers came to that conclusion."
"It's ironic that sharks, which have received so much media attention lately, are desperately in need of our help," said Aliki Moncreif of Earthjustice in Tallahassee. "NMFS officials know what they're doing is wrong. They know they're not helping the industry in the long run. The government needs to stop pandering to special interests, and NMFS has to reduce large coastal shark catch immediately so that these populations have a chance to recover."
Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly, mature late, and produce a small number of young. The sandbar shark population has declined by as much as 80 percent since the late 1970s. Depletion of dusky sharks led to a prohibition on fishing for the species. Now considered candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, dusky sharks continue to be killed incidentally in the coastal shark fishery. As top predators, sharks are crucial to keeping ocean ecosystems in balance.
The groups are calling for NMFS to set large coastal shark quotas at the proposed 1999 levels and account for overages caused by overfishing from 1999 through the present. In addition, the groups have asked the court to prevent NMFS from relying on the peer reviews because the agency circumvented applicable laws in delegating decision-making authority to outside individuals.
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