Today, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter calling on the U.S. federal government to take immediate action to decrease the number of dusky sharks killed as unintended catch in U.S. fisheries. This letter highlights the dramatic decline of these shark populations in the Atlantic and Gulf due to overfishing and bycatch, which is the catch of non-target fish and ocean wildlife. The senators urged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to “uphold the law and take the steps necessary to ensure the survival of vibrant oceans for generations to come,” by establishing strict catch limits to reduce overfishing and specifically protect threatened dusky sharks, whose populations have plummeted by 85 percent.
“There's no reason for the federal government not to take the needed steps to reduce the number of dusky sharks needlessly caught and killed off our Eastern coast, especially when the fisheries service has known for years that this species is in serious trouble,” said Oceana campaign director Lora Snyder, in response to the letter sent today. “The federal government has said again and again that it will take action and help protect dusky sharks, yet these pledges continue to go nowhere. Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem—minimizing bycatch is possible. The fisheries service can implement scientifically proven tools and management measures to reduce the wasteful deaths of thousands of these vulnerable apex predators.”
In 2000, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), prohibited fishermen from intentionally catching dusky sharks in order to allow decimated populations to rebuild. This was a good step forward, but NMFS failed to consider that dusky sharks would continue to be killed as bycatch. Four years later, the government planned to announce a proposed rule to address the overfishing and bycatch issues. However, the proposal was eventually withdrawn despite broad support from scientists and conservation groups. Since then, the government has taken no visible steps to address these problems, even though it is required to by law. In the meantime, an estimated 75,000 dusky sharks have been killed as bycatch in major fisheries in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico since they were officially prohibited from being targeted 15 years ago.
Compared to other shark species, dusky sharks reach their sexual maturity very late—around 20 years of age. This means that their populations are slow to recover and ill-equipped to adapt when overfished and exploited. Female dusky sharks also return to the same waters they were born to give birth to their own pups, causing dusky sharks to be grouped into distinct population segments that are easily depleted from local fishing pressure. Although they are not considered to be dangerous to humans, dusky sharks are also known for having the most powerful bite of all shark species!
As the senators stress in the letter, “even though NMFS is legally obligated to set catch limits and end overfishing, it has not yet done so….NMFS has a good sense of what will work, such as closing bycatch hotspot areas. The clock is ticking.”
Oceana applauds Sens. Booker, Cantwell and Whitehouse for their leadership on this issue. It is past time for NMFS to act upon its legal obligation to establish stricter catch limits. Without action, these amazing apex predators may disappear from the Atlantic coast forever.