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Environmental Groups Sue to Stop Overfishing of Large Coastal Sharks

Hiding Behind Uncertain Science, Government Turns Its Back on Depleted Atlantic Sharks
January 24, 2003
Washington, DC —

In an effort to rebuild populations of overfished large coastal sharks in US waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit today in federal court in Tampa, Florida, on behalf of The Ocean Conservancy and National Audubon Society. The plaintiffs charge that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has failed to rebuild large coastal shark populations and is allowing continued overfishing on some of the most vulnerable species by implementing risk-prone quota increases. The subject of this new suit is NMFS' emergency rule of December 27, 2002, which raised the large coastal shark quota by 33 percent and did away with a size limit that would have protected young sharks. The groups also claim that NMFS has short-circuited public participation in fisheries management by regulating via emergency rules, illegally eliminating the opportunity for public comment. The groups further charge that NMFS failed to do a proper environmental assessment of the full impacts of its emergency rule.

Slow-growing Atlantic large coastal sharks, including sandbar, dusky, and hammerhead sharks, have been seriously overfished during recent decades. Although a 2002 population assessment indicates that two species (blacktip and sandbar) may have begun a recovery, overfishing continues on most species in the large coastal grouping, including sandbar.

"The U.S government has jumped the gun and once again jeopardized some of the oceans' most vulnerable animals," said Sonja Fordham, shark conservation specialist at The Ocean Conservancy. "Their smoke and mirror calculations just don't add up to support more fishing. By rushing to ensure maximum exploitation of just one type of commercially caught shark they have turned their backs on a whole host of other imperiled species. This risk-prone action flies in the face of the precautionary approach that is so clearly warranted for sharks."

In 1999, after extensive input from shark experts and the public, NMFS adopted a management plan focused on rebuilding 22 species of large coastal sharks in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. However, due to shark fishing industry lawsuits, planned quota reductions, minimum sizes, and other measures from this plan never took effect. Since then, coastal sharks have undergone a new population assessment. This assessment found that large coastal sharks are still overfished with overfishing still occurring, and suggested that quota cuts of up to 50 percent might be necessary to rebuild populations.

Rather than issuing a proposed rule for public notice and comment prior to taking final action, for the third year in a row NMFS has set quotas via emergency rule. This circumvents the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. Moreover, NMFS has once again rubber-stamped its decision with a woefully inadequate environmental assessment, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

"What is NMFS thinking?" remarked Dr. Merry Camhi, Assistant Director of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program. "The only emergency here is that most large coastal sharks are still in trouble. NMFS has failed to demonstrate why quotas should be increased, minimum sizes eliminated, and fishing seasons changed. Despite improvements in the science, there remains no question among shark experts that quotas need to be cut and that these animals need more precautionary management. Even the peer reviews of the 2002 assessment, pointing to the tremendous uncertainty in the data and vulnerability of these animals, came to that conclusion."

"Floridians support protections for coastal sharks, and marine biologists have warned against raising quotas," said Earthjustice attorney Aliki Moncrief. "Still, officials rushed through this change that bypasses public opinion and disregards scientific research. It's a handout to the fishing industry, plain and simple."

Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly, mature late, and produce a small number of young. Decades of unrestricted fishing for Atlantic large coastal sharks has left many species in serious trouble. The sandbar shark population has declined by as much as 80 percent since the late 1970s. Other species remain in serious trouble. Depletion of sand tiger, night, and dusky sharks led to a prohibition on fishing for them. Now considered candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, these species continue to be killed incidentally in the coastal shark fishery. A new study, published last week in the journal Science, further documented declines of as much as 89 percent for hammerheads, 79 percent for great white, and 65 percent for tiger sharks over the past two decades. These Atlantic large coastal sharks now face an increased quota and relaxed management measures due to NMFS' rash action last month.

The groups are calling for NMFS to lower the fishing quota to a precautionary level that stops overfishing and ensures rebuilding of all large coastal shark species, especially those most depleted and vulnerable species, as mandated by law.


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Suzanne Carrier

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About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.