NMFS Putting Finishing Touches on Large Coastal Sharks

from Fisherman Magazine - by Al Ristori

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association March 2003 Newsletter)

Though an article by Canadian researchers in the Jan. 17 issue of Science magazine contends shark population sare crashing in the Northwest Atlantic, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is expanding the commercial fishery for large coastal sharks including some of the species most heavily impacted.  According to the article entitled Collapse and Conservation of Shark Populations in the Northwest Atlantic, logbook data from longliners targeting swordfish and tuna in that vast area demonstrates a decline of over 50% in all shark species other than makos during the past 8 to 15 years. Most seriously depleted are hammerheads (primarily scalloped hammerheads) which are down 89% since 1986; white sharks off by 79%; tiger sharks down by 65%; and threshers off by 80%. Furthermore, the coastal sharks grouping which includes members of the genus Carcharhunus that are hard to distinguish is down 61% since 1992 with declines for the various individual species ranging from 49% to 83%.

Yet, NMFS has expanded the commercial large coastal shark quota to 783 metric tons for ridgeback sharks (including tiger, sandbar and silky sharks) and 931 tons for non-ridgeback sharks which include blacktips, spinners, bulls, lemons, the innocuous nurse -- and those severely depleted hammerheads. That total large coastal tonnage of 1714 is way up from the 1997 quota of 1,285 metric tons. It should also be noted that the tonnage is really even higher because it is not expressed in drawn (not round) weight.  As an angler who has been sharking for about 40 years, itís rather hard to accept NMFS arguments that shark stocks are being restored. All species have declined sharply since commercial shark fishing took hold during 1980s when the market for shark fins in the Orient heated up. Though we still see good numbers of some pelagics (mostly blue sharks plus a showing of makos), the previously abundant sandbars (brown sharks) have become an unusual catch. Tigers are no longer hooked regularly, and the scalloped hammerheads which used to be a common sight (often swimming on the surface by the dozens in Mid-Atlantic waters during the summer) havenít been seen in years.

While changes in abundance of species which mature quickly, such as scup and weakfish, can vary tremendously over a matter of a few years, sharks are long-lived but generally slow-growing and late to mature -- at which time they produce only a few pups per spawning cycle. That being the fact, how can the populations deemed depleted one year suddenly be restored to the point where a large increase in commercial fishing can be permitted the next? Where did all these adult large coastal sharks come from and how come recreational sharkers arenít seeing them?  Perhaps, under the pressure of commercial law suits, NMFS has come up with a magic elixer which not only produces massive quantities of pups but grows them to harvestable sizes virtually overnight! That mention of harvestable sizes has also been modified. Actually, modified isnít a good word as NMFS just dropped the 4 1/2-foot minimim length altogether on the commercial side. Of course, like all of the other loosening of large coastal shark regulations, that applies only to commercial fishermen who are rewarded for having severely depleted these fisheries. Anglers remain stuck with the 4 1/2-foot minimum and one shark per boat -- and now have to buy the $27 NMFS permit that was originally only supposed to apply to bluefin tuna in order to fish for sharks at all. There appears to be a further complication also as the latest opinion from NMFS is that private boaters opting for a general category permit so they can sell tuna will not be permitted to fish for sharks and billfish Ė effectively eliminating them from tournaments.

NMFS has pulled off the increased shark quota via the emergency rule loophole. The comment period ends at 5 p.m., Feb. 14, but the fishery has been going on since Jan. 1. Indeed, NMFS has determined (based on past landings) that the quota for ridgeback sharks will be taken by April 15, and that semi-annual fishery will be closed at that time. Yet, the non-ridgeback quota is estimated to last through May 15, so longlining will go on for another month while ridgeback sharks are discarded. That idea had to involve some real brainstorming!

This is a done deal and there obviously isnít anything we can say in our comments which will sway NMFS from its headlong rush into permitting commercial destruction of the large coastal sharks. Just to demonstrate that they donít only have it in for those species, NMFS has also provided 326 metric tons, drawn weight, for the small coastal sharks complex which includes the overfished finetooth as well as the sharpnose, bonnethead and blacknose. Then, in order to ensure that no mako (no matter how small) is released from a longline, NMFS has provided seperate quotas of 273 tons for blue sharks and 92 tons for porbeagles (a species which virtually disappeared from the Mid-Atlantic decades ago after a brief longlining effort by Faroes Island fishermen) which allows 488 metric tons to be extracted in higher-value pelagics -- makos and threshers.

Since thereís hardly even a pretense of shark conservation remaining at NMFS, it might be worthwhile to ask why recreational fishermen (who have long been releasing the vast majority of the sharks they catch) are still operating under the old rules which no longer apply to commercial fishermen -- such as a 4 1/2-foot minimum and many species prohibited altogether as well as the one per boat limit.  Comments go to Chris Rogers, Chief, Highly Migratory Species Management Division, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 -- or may be faxed to 301 713-1917.  Remember the comment period ends this Friday at 5 p.m


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