A Small Victory for a Dwindling Species: Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

Thanks in part to this lawsuit, whitetip sharks will have a better chance of survival if they get accidentally caught in fishing gear.

Oceanic whitetip shark.
Oceanic whitetip shark. (Kaikea Nakachi)

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The Earthjustice Oceans Team is celebrating a small step toward recovery for Western and Pacific oceanic whitetip sharks. These sharks were at the center of our recent legal challenge, brought on behalf of Mike Nakachi and the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i. Thanks in part to this lawsuit, whitetip sharks will soon have a better chance of surviving if they are accidentally caught in fishing gear.

Oceanic whitetips are solitary and highly mobile sharks that live in the world’s tropical and sub-tropical waters. They were once one of the most abundant shark species in the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, due to overfishing, the population in the Pacific has plummeted by 80-95% since the 1990s and is teetering toward extinction.

Even though oceanic whitetips have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2018, too many are still caught and killed by fishing. One of the biggest culprits of oceanic whitetip shark deaths are commercial longline fishing fleets in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. Fishermen accidentally hook and catch sharks in their fishing gear while fishing for tuna and other species. The sharks are not the target, but are caught on the fishing line when they bite or ingest hooks — ending up as bycatch.

Once caught, a shark may struggle for hours and die. Even if it is released alive, it may die later from stress, infection, or injury.

We filed a lawsuit in April 2020 to force the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting and managing the species, to designate the oceanic whitetip shark as “overfished” under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The “overfished” designation is an important step in the oceanic whitetip’s path to recovery. Once a species is declared “overfished,” the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (known as WesPac), is required to address the bycatch problem both domestically and internationally. WesPac is the appointed panel charged with managing U.S. fisheries in the Western Pacific Ocean.

Just a few months after we filed our lawsuit, the National Marine Fisheries Service made and published the overfished designation we fought for.

Our client, Michael Nakachi, said at the time: “The manō (shark) has great cultural significance and is part of my own family as an ‘aumakua (protector). These shark deaths are preventable. The government’s action thus far is a welcome first step to ensure the survival of this sacred animal that has roamed in our waters for millions of years.”

Since the National Marine Fisheries Service’s action, we’ve been monitoring WesPac’s deliberations and have provided suggestions through comment letters for the best actions to ensure that the dwindling oceanic whitetip shark population does not disappear.

In May, the management council finally finished its deliberations.

WesPac has recommended two changes to U.S. federal regulations to better protect sharks:

  • First, the fishing gear that the Hawai‘i deep-set longline fleet uses to catch bigeye tuna will change from steel wire to monofilament nylon line, a much softer material that is easier to cut and easier for sharks to bite through and escape.
  • Second, if a shark gets caught, all longline vessels in the U.S. fisheries in the Western Pacific Ocean will be required to cut the fishing line as close to the hook as possible; the goal is to leave less than a meter of trailing gear on a shark. Trailing gear kills a significant number of sharks because the sharks have to spend energy fighting the gear and may become more susceptible to infection, entanglement, and predation.

WesPac has also recommended that the State Department and National Marine Fisheries Service address the prevalent oceanic whitetip bycatch problem on the high seas. The management council advised those federal agencies to advocate internationally for increased third-party monitoring in shark hot spots, for better shark safety and handling requirements, and for changes to fishing line material and the way hooks are configured on all international vessels.

While we are encouraged by these initial steps, much more needs to be done. Our work is not over.

WesPac ignored our requests to require better safeguards for sharks in U.S. waters. We urged the council to require monofilament nylon lines in all U.S. longline fisheries, not just the Hawai‘i deep-set longline fleet. Doing so would strengthen the U.S.’s ability to advocate for monofilament requirements internationally. We also requested that the council require corrodible non-stainless steel circle hooks in order to decrease long-term impacts and injuries to caught sharks. And we advocated for the council to modify the gear configuration of deep-set longlines and remove shallow hooks. Since oceanic whitetip sharks spend most of their time in the upper water column, removing the shallowest hooks would reduce their bycatch and mortality rates.

We will continue to advocate for these protections for oceanic whitetips in every available venue.

We also plan to closely track international developments so WesPac’s recommendations to the State Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service translate into real action by the U.S. government.

A key event will happen in December 2021, when the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meets. This international panel is responsible for managing oceanic whitetips in the high seas of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The U.S. is a member of this panel, and we will urge the U.S. to propose and encourage the adoption of robust and binding international measures to change both fishing gear use and the way caught sharks are handled.

It is important to remember that oceanic whitetip sharks are long-lived and slow growing. A female oceanic whitetip can take a full nine years to reach sexual maturity and will typically only give birth every other year after a lengthy gestation period of 10-12 months.

Our oceans — and the creatures that sustain them — face a cascade of challenges in a warming Earth. We’re committed to fighting for these critical apex predators who sit at the top of the marine food chain and are an essential part of ocean health.

Grace Bauer is a senior associate attorney at Earthjustice’s Oceans office in Seattle, Washington.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.