Today, in response to a 2015 Oceana lawsuit, the Obama administration released a proposal to address the chronic overfishing of dusky sharks in U.S. waters. In the proposed rule, which Oceana deems grossly inadequate, the National Marine Fisheries Service fails to offer the measures necessary to stop dusky shark declines and aide their recovery, such as strict limits on the number of dusky sharks unintentially caught in multiple fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Dusky shark populations off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have plummeted by 65 percent in the past two decades as a result of overfishing and bycatch—the capture of non-target fish and ocean wildlife.
Dusky sharks grow slowly and have low reproductive rates, making them highly vulnerable to overfishing. A recent study estimates that, even if effective regulations are finally established, dusky sharks would need between 70 and 180 years to rebuild. Despite the federal government acknowledging that dusky sharks were severely depleted nearly 20 years ago, these sharks are still being overfished today in violation of federal law. Between 2006 and 2010, almost 4,000 dusky sharks were caught annually in fishing gear meant to catch other species such as grouper, snapper, swordfish and other sharks. Many of these dusky sharks—as many as 80 percent—die by the time they are hauled to the boat and tossed overboard.
Oceana campaign director Lora Snyder released the following statement in response to today’s proposed rule:
“This is yet another example of the federal government failing to take meaningful action to control the capture and killing of dusky sharks. The proposal released today does not come to grips with the problem, as it fails to even address all the fishing fleets responsible for catching dusky sharks.
“The federal government’s new rule fails to show how the proposed regulations would achieve a 35 percent reduction in the catch of dusky sharks, which is necessary to rebuild the stock, as required by law. In fact, the government is ignoring its own science. Based on a recent government stock assessment, any capture of more than 29 adult dusky sharks (7,000 pounds) could undermine the species’ ability to rebuild.
“While direct fishing for dusky sharks has been prohibited since 2000, the federal government has never addressed the thousands of dusky sharks that are accidentally caught and killed in fishing gear every year.
“So far, the government has focused its efforts on reducing bycatch of dusky sharks in U.S. fisheries for swordfish and tuna. Unfortunately, limiting bycatch in these fisheries alone will not solve the problem because other fisheries are responsible for the majority of dusky shark bycatch.
“The evidence is clear about what should be required: strict limits on bycatch in the fisheries where dusky sharks are most vulnerable, specifically in the U.S. reef fish fisheries. Bycatch caps would provide an incentive for fisheries to avoid catching dusky sharks, acting as a backstop to shut down fishing activity as soon as a scientifically-based cap is reached. A bycatch cap would count, limit and account for all of the sharks that are being caught.
“The law is clear. When the federal government knows that a fish stock is overfished, it must take evidence-based measures to rebuild that stock and ensure that all catches are accounted for. The federal government must include bycatch caps for all of the fisheries in which dusky sharks are being killed. Accountability is required by the law, and fully-accountable management may be the last chance these beautiful sharks have for a future.
“It is long past time for the government to get this species back on track. Unfortunately, this proposal is unlikely to yield any different results than the decades of mismanagement that have gotten us into this situation.
“It is imperative that the Obama administration takes its duty to protect these sharks seriously and releases the strongest possible final rule next year, including fishery-specific bycatch caps and management measures to hold each fishery accountable for its catch of dusky sharks.”
Andrea Treece, the attorney at Earthjustice representing Oceana in this case, offered the following statement:
“The science is clear that simply prohibiting the intentional capture of dusky sharks is not enough to bring this top predator back to healthy population levels. The law is equally clear that the Fisheries Service has to put a strict limit on—and significantly reduce—the number of dusky sharks that are unintentionally captured and killed in multiple fisheries off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The past fifteen years of unsuccessful dusky shark management have demonstrated that ignoring bycatch doesn’t work. It’s time for the agency to address the root of the dusky shark overfishing problem and allow this magnificent species to fill its role at the top of the food chain.”
As part of the settlement agreement with Oceana, the public will have 60 days to review and comment on this proposal and a final rule will be published by early April 2017.