Monday, January 3, 2011

New York Times: Endangered Predator

Large, oceangoing commercial fish like tuna and swordfish have been in steady decline for years, victims of poor regulation and rapacious overfishing by big industrial fleets. But one relentlessly hunted fish — sharks — may finally be catching a break.

Each year, commercial and recreational fishing kills more than 100 million sharks globally (the number of humans killed by sharks in 2008: four). Of these, an estimated 73 million are slaughtered solely for their fins to provide the shark fin soup that is so popular in Asia. The fins are sliced off and the sharks dumped back in the water; unable to swim, they sink to the bottom and die.

A 2000 law banned finning off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Last month, Congress approved a bill prohibiting shark finning in all United States waters. It requires boats to bring sharks to port with the fins attached. This limits each vessel’s catch, since a whole shark takes up a lot more room than the fins alone.

The bill’s immediate impact on the global market will be modest. But it gives the United States credibility to push other big fishing nations to follow its lead.

In November, an international commission banned fishing for whitetip sharks and six types of hammerheads. True to form, the commission waited until the fish were at death’s door before acting. The whitetips have declined by 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, and hammerheads by 99 percent in the Mediterranean.

Sharks have been around for 400 million years, and as top predators in the food chain have played an important role in the complex web of ocean life. Fully one-third of about 1,000 shark and ray species are thought to be in serious trouble or nearing extinction. Any help they can get is good news for the entire ecosystem.

Published online and in print January 3, 2011.

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