January 14, 2013

Michael Tucker, International Conservation Intern

The oceanic whitetip was once considered the most abundant species of sharks on the planet. But now, due largely to overfishing, it has become one of the most threatened. A member of the same family as the bull shark, sandbar shark, and blacktip shark, the oceanic whitetip is highly migratory. It lives in warm seas, and is capable of bearing live young. Unfortunately for the oceanic whitetip, they do not breed fast enough to counteract the vast overfishing of the species which has occurred over the past 60 years.

What’s the Problem?

oceanic whitetip shark

Oceanic whitetip shark (©Peter Koelbl)

For years, biologists have seen oceanic whitetip populations decline. In 2006, the IUCN designated the species as threatened. While the global population is difficult to know for certain, it is estimated that their population decreased almost 70 percent globally between 1992 and 2000, and is continuing to go down every day. Along the Gulf of Mexico, records from the 1950s compared to those from the 1990s show a shocking population decrease in oceanic whitetip shark population of 98 percent!

Catching and finning sharks has become much more popular throughout many Asian countries in the past several years. And around 30 percent of all the sharks brought in by these fishing vessels is oceanic whitetip sharks! The reason whitetips are so vulnerable to this practice  is that they tend to follow ships, seeking food dropped off the sides. This allows them to easily be trapped in the large nets dragged behind finning vessels. Each shark fin sells for around $80 to the restaurants that use them for shark fin soup. Unfortunately, that means they won’t stop anytime soon without a very good reason to cut back. Roughly 73 million sharks of various species are killed each year to make shark fin soup.

Bycatch is another massive problem facing sharks. Longline cables, drag nets and other means of catching larger fish such as tuna end up snagging other creatures as well, including the oceanic whitetip. These sharks are then thrown back into the ocean too weak to swim from being strung up for hours or even days, caught on a hook not intended for them. Without the strength to swim away, these sharks often drown or find themselves victims of other scavengers who follow these boats. Oceanic whitetips make up just over 20 percent of the sharks caught on these longlines in the Pacific Ocean. With so many oceanic whitetips killed each year, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to repopulate fast enough to balance out the numbers.

What Can We Do?
One of the best steps we can take to protect oceanic whitetips is to have them listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. Being listed under CITES would mean that  international trade in the fins and other parts of sharks would be closely monitored and regulated to make sure that the species would not be threatened with extinction. Given that one of the largest threats to the species is due to trade, regulation could make a huge difference.

For several years now, many Latin American countries have been leading proposals to CITES about expanding protection for sharks. In the upcoming March 2013 CITES meeting in Thailand, the United States, along with Brazil and Colombia, will cosponsor the proposal to list the oceanic whitetip shark under CITES Appendix II. The United States will cosponsor the proposal, and Defenders of Wildlife has been collecting data and preparing materials on the oceanic whitetip to help our cosponsor countries prepare for it. If the proposal is approved, all countries involved in the international shark fin trade will be required to get a permit in order to import the sharks or their fins, and regulations will only allow for a sustainable harvest. If it passes, this will be a great step toward curbing the uncontrolled harvest and trade of sharks for their fins, and will help save a species worth keeping for future generations.


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