It was the largest shark kill the Texas game wardens had ever seen. Last week, wildlife officials discovered an estimated 3,000 sharks caught and killed in an illegal gill net off South Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gill nets hang underwater from floats to a lead-weighted bottom line like mesh curtains, often extending up to 5 miles in length and 25 feet in depth. Notorious for their bycatch threat to sea turtles, marine mammals (such as, sea otters, dolphins and whales), sea birds, and other non-target fish, gill net possession has been illegal in Texas since 1981.
“This is by far the most sharks I have ever gotten in one load. Myself and my deck hand have been working on this boat for 15 years and have never seen this many sharks in one net,” said Sgt. James Dunks. Indeed, Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations prohibit licensed fishers from catching more than one shark per day.
Dunks told NPR that a majority of the sharks found in the net were babies coming to shore to feed: “They just pretty much wiped out a whole generation of sharks right there in that one area.” Like most sharks, blacktips, bonnetheads, and sharpnoses—the species victim to this latest tragedy—have low reproduction rates (anywhere from 1 to 14 pups per year). Claims to losing an entire generation, then, are no exaggeration.
Dunks suspects the nets were set by Mexican fishers crossing into U.S. waters because Mexican waters are over-fished. This illustrates the severe consequences of fishing down the trophic ladder. Once the ecosystem is destroyed, the industry and its place in the overall economy are next in line (this lesson can of course be applied to almost any industry that relies on ecosystem services).
Fishery management is a complex balance of economics and ecology, depending on who is assessing the situation. Earthjustice’s fishery management suits are grounded in science that highlights our need for better practices that keep ocean ecosystems strong and resilient against change—be it climate or oil-spill induced.
From sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico to sea and river herring in New England, Earthjustice reacts to the environmental threat of capricious fishing practices with the goal of winning precedent-setting cases that promote a holistic, ecosystem-conscious approach to commercial fishing.
If federal agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) do not uphold high standards of sustainability, they threaten the prosperity of both industry and the environment. Until this threat is gone, Earthjustice will continue its legal fight in defense of a healthy ocean.