Tuesday, September 17, 2013

ACTION ALERT: Protect Florida's Lemon Sharks

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The well-documented lemon shark aggregation that occurs during the months of January to April/May off the coast of Jupiter, Florida, is in trouble. NOAA implemented a rule changing the opening date of the 2013 Atlantic Shark Commercial Fishing Season from July 1st to January 1st, putting the lemon sharks at a potentially high risk of overexploitation because the earlier opening date coincides with when the breeding-aged lemon sharks congregate in a relatively small geographical area. The aggregation is highly publicized and therefore may have been actively targeted and heavily fished in early 2013 because they are easy targets while in such a large group in a predictable location. Data suggests that the lemon shark population that makes up the aggregation is already experiencing severe declines in numbers in recent years and the changing of the opening dates has raised very serious concerns among the scientists of the Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS), NGO’s, divers and the diving industry and concerned citizens. NOAA has again proposed to open the 2014 Atlantic Shark Commercial Fishing Season on January 1. We now have the opportunity to comment on this proposed rule, raising our concerns on its impact on the lemon shark aggregation. The request for comment was listed in the Federal Register Vol. 78, No. 164 (document identified as NOAA-NMFS-2013-0112), which is attached.

It is very important for the public to submit constructive comments and we hope that all concerned individuals and groups take a moment to speak up for our lemon sharks! Comments MUST BE SUBMITTED BY SEPTEMBER 23, 2013 to be considered so time is of the essence!!!

The process to comment is simple and the steps for electronic submission are:
Step 1: Go to www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2013-0112
Step 2: Click the ‘‘Comment Now!’’ icon
Step 3: Complete the required fields and enter or attach your comments.

*Please remember that all comments received are a part of the public record, all personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, etc.), confidential business information, or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily by the sender will be publicly accessible. NMFS will accept anonymous comments (enter ‘‘N/A’’ in the required fields if you wish to remain anonymous). Attachments to electronic comments will be accepted in Microsoft Word, Excel, or Adobe PDF file formats only.*

The Proposed Rule Document states that the “seasonal variation of the different species/management groups” was examined and that “the proposed opening date of January 1 would allow fishermen to harvest some of the 2014 quota at the beginning of the year, when sharks are more prevalent in the South Atlantic area.” It has been brought to our attention that fishermen are speaking up AGAINST the January 1st opening date because of the ‘uneven’ distribution of targeted shark species so for the first time we are asking for the same thing! Therefore, we urge you to submit fact-based constructive comments and we have provided some talking points below:
  • We oppose the proposed rule that the 2014 Atlantic Shark Commercial Fishing Season open on January 1 based on its negative effect on the regional lemon shark aggregation off the coast of Jupiter, Florida. To relieve fishing pressure on a vulnerable population, we recommend the fishing season open on the July 1 date, when the seasonal distribution of lemon sharks is not as concentrated.
  • Although the opening season criteria used by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) includes “variation in seasonal distribution, abundance, or migratory patterns of the different species or management groups based on scientific and fishery information” we are concerned that significant negative effect that this opening date could have on the well-documented aggregation has not been considered or adequately addressed.
  • Lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) are biologically vulnerable to overfishing considering their conservative life history strategy
  • Lemon sharks demonstrate specific behavioral ecology resulting in a predictable annual aggregation. The aggregation is well-documented and highly publicized among the public. This characteristic means that the sharks, during this season, are extremely vulnerable to being easily targeted to quickly fill quotas because of the density of the aggregation.
  • This specific aggregation of lemon sharks is extremely valuable to the regional SCUBA diving industry that markets the natural aggregation for recreational dives. This aggregation has gained wide attention and is considered one of the best opportunities to dive, view, and photograph sharks in their natural environment. The socioeconomic benefit of the aggregation is significant to this region of Florida’s economy. The declines that are already underway have been reflected in anecdotal evidence by the recreational diving community. Diving professionals who have witnessed the aggregation first-hand for several years have reported much smaller numbers of lemon sharks or difficulty in finding the aggregation at all.
  • Regulatory measures implemented in 2006 to protect sandbar sharks have increased pressures on other large coastal species, including lemon sharks. The current data suggest the population of aggregating lemon sharks is experiencing declines. On average, there has been a 10-15% decline in redetection rates per year since 2007, indicating harvest rates are too high for the population to ever recover, even under maximum recovery rates for this species.

Biological research conducted by the Bimini Biological Field Station (http://www6.miami.edu/sharklab/), directed by Dr. Steven Kessel and Dr. Samuel Gruber since 2007 has revealed that adult lemon sharks ranging from Georgia and the Carolinas through the Florida Keys and out to the Bahamas aggregate on the coastal shelf off Jupiter, Florida during the months of January to April before returning to their northern summer home ranges. From this study, researchers report an alarming declining in recapture rates since early in 2010, averaging 10-15% decline per year since 2007, indicating that the harvest rates are too high for the population to recover even under maximum recovery rates for this species.
For any questions about this ACTION ALERT, please contact: Hannah Medd

Dr. Samuel Gruber


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