July 24, 2017

Shark Week Brings a Much-Needed Spotlight to Threats Facing Sharks and Our Ocean Habitats

Great white shark by Elias Levy

It’s late July, and that can only mean one thing: it’s Shark Week!

This year’s Shark Week kicked off with what was hailed as an epic battle of man versus beast when Michael Phelps took on a great white shark in a swimming contest. Well, the shark turned out to be just a computer simulated representation that took the Olympian to task—so much for the “drama.”

As fascinating as a Phelps/Jaws-style mashup promised to be—and truly it does pique one’s interest—it’s not the best way to learn about the very real challenges facing sharks today. (It’s not likely outracing an Olympic swimmer is one of them—with a top speed of 25 mph compared to Phelps’ top speed of 6 mph, great white sharks have nothing to fear). The reality is that many species of sharks are facing extraordinary threats to their very existence. Of the 465 known species of sharks, 141 are currently listed as threatened or near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, including 26 species that are endangered or critically endangered.

So, instead of manufacturing drama between man and fake fish, Defenders will use this opportunity to address two battles affecting sharks taking place right now: President Trump’s executive order calling for the “review” of six national marine sanctuaries and five marine national monuments, and the devastating and exploitative practice of shark finning (to be addressed in a blog entry later this week—stay tuned!).

Troubled Waters

Back in April, President Trump added insult to injury when he issued an executive order shortly after his order directing the Secretary of the Interior to “review” 27 national monuments for potential elimination or reduction in size or protections. Executive Order 13795 directs the Secretary of Commerce to similarly “review” six national marine sanctuaries in addition to the five marine national monuments already under review by the Secretary of the Interior. This may be the first step towards reducing the size of or the legal protections for these incredibly important marine habitats in an effort to open these places to the fossil fuel industry and commercial fishing. Any reduction in the protections for these marine monuments and sanctuaries could have devastating effects on the numerous species of sharks, as well as thousands of other marine species, that call these places home.

Opening up these marine monuments and sanctuaries to commercial fishing would greatly increase the take of sharks, whether through intentional catch or incidental bycatch. The loss of sharks to the commercial fishing industry is a leading cause of their rapid population declines worldwide. Some estimates put the annual bycatch rate of commercial fisheries at 50 million sharks per year!

Habitat degradation and loss are also major threats to sharks, which are known to be highly susceptible to pollution and environmental contamination because of their position at the top of the marine food chain. Opening these important marine habitats to oil and gas development and commercial fishing would expose already-fragile populations to increased risks. And as a top predator, the negative impacts on sharks from extraction and fishing would have cascading effects throughout these ecosystems and on marine life they support.

Take action now to protect marine habitats for sharks and countless ocean life.

What’s at Stake?

Following is a brief review of the habitats on the chopping block—and potentially the auction block—for the fossil fuel industry and other commercial interests:
The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (Off the coast of California near Santa Barbara)

Great white shark by Elias Levy

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 1,470 square miles surrounding five of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara. The sanctuary’s location at the confluence of two major ocean current creates remarkable biodiversity. Among the many species that can be spotted in and around the sanctuary are a variety of shark species, including swell sharks, Pacific angel sharks, leopard sharks, horn sharks, great white sharks (vulnerable[1]), blue sharks, bluntnose sixgill sharks, broadnose sevengill sharks, shortfin mako sharks (vulnerable), hammerhead sharks (several species are vulnerable or endangered), thresher sharks, and soupfin sharks (vulnerable).

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary (Off the coast of California near San Francisco)

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary covers 1,286 square miles off the coast of northern California, bounded to the north, south, and east by the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. It is often referred to as the “albatross capital of the northern hemisphere.” It is also one of the most important feeding grounds in the world for the imperiled humpback whale. In addition to these distinguishing factors and the multitude of other sealife it supports, Cordell Bank also supports various shark species including: blue sharks, salmon sharks, bluntnose sixgill sharks, great white sharks (vulnerable), and thresher sharks (vulnerable).

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (Off the coast of California near San Francisco)
Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, off the northern and central California coast, is home to one of the most significant great white shark (vulnerable) populations on the planet. At 3,295 square miles, it is larger than the State of Rhode Island, and consists of a diversity of landscape features, from rocky intertidal areas to wetlands, coastal beaches to subtidal reefs. In addition to its impressive population of great white sharks, the Greater Farallones also provides habitat for basking sharks (vulnerable) and is home to the largest concentration of breeding seabirds in the continental U.S.

Thresher shark by Maxime Guilbot

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (Off the coast of California near Monterey)
Off the coast of central California, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the largest marine sanctuary in the continental U.S. at 6,094 square miles. It is often referred to as the “Serengeti of the Sea” because of its vast ecosystem diversity and extensive kelp forests. That diversity is illustrated by the array of sharks this sanctuary supports: blue shark, filetail catshark, great white shark (vulnerable), leopard shark, broadnose sevengill shark, swell shark, horn shark, common thresher shark (vulnerable), basking shark (vulnerable), shortfin mako (vulnerable), salmon shark, brown catshark, longnose catshark, tope shark (vulnerable), grey smoothhound shark, brown smoothhound shark, bluntnose sixgill shark, prickly shark, Pacific sleeper shark, and Pacific angel shark. Of course, the sanctuary is perhaps best known for its population of southern sea otters (listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act and endangered on the IUCN Red List).

The National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa (Off the coast of American Samoa in the South Pacific Ocean)
The National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa takes the prize as the largest—and most remote—sanctuary at 13,581 square miles. It is the only true tropical reef in the sanctuary system and is home to an estimated 1,400 invertebrates. It is also a favorite spot for shark species, such as blacktip and whitetip reef sharks. Hammerhead sharks (several species are vulnerable or endangered), tiger sharks and whale sharks (endangered) have also been known to frequent its waters.

Blacktip reef shark by Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps

Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (Near the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific Ocean)
Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (13,393 square miles) remains one of the most pristine atolls in the world. Its dynamic reef ecosystem is home to a broad diversity of shark species, including blacktip, whitetip and gray reef sharks. The monument also provides habitat for the greatest number of nesting sea turtles in American Samoa, including the endangered green and hawksbill sea turtles.

Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (Near the Northern Mariana Islands in the North Pacific Ocean)
Marianas Trench Marine National Monument preserves the deepest point on earth, at nearly 11,000 meters below sea level. Active volcanoes and thermal vents support life that survives despite the immense water pressure and constant darkness of this environment. The Marianas Trench is among the most biodiverse waters in the western Pacific, and contains the greatest diversity of seamount and hydrothermal vent life in the world. It is possible that extreme conditions like those in the monument were the first incubators of life. This seascape is home to large numbers of sharks, including bluntnose sixgill sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks (vulnerable), silky sharks, smalltooth sandtiger sharks (vulnerable) and whale sharks (vulnerable).

Whale shark by Sam Farkas, NOAA

Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Near the Hawaiian Islands in the North Pacific Ocean)
The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is the fourth largest marine reserve in the world at 490,300 square miles—roughly the size of Texas, Georgia and California put together. It is also one of the largest refuges for sharks in the world. Sharks known to frequent its waters include whale sharks (endangered), silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks (vulnerable), gray reef sharks and whitetip sharks.  The monument is also home to a vast array of other species, 15 to 44 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Near the Hawaiian Islands in the North Pacific Ocean)
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (583,000 square miles) is the second largest marine reserve on earth and one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. It supports more than 7,000 species in its coral reef system, of which approximately 25 percent are unique to the Hawaiian Islands. Its diversity of species and unique ecology has garnered it the nickname of “America’s Galapagos.” Sharks are key species in the ecosystems of the monument and the adjacent areas. At least a dozen species of sharks inhabit the open ocean area adjacent to the monument, including blue sharks, three species of thresher sharks (vulnerable), and both species of mako sharks—longfin and shortfin (both vulnerable. The monument area itself supports tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks and endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks amongst many others.

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument (Off the New England coast in the Atlantic Ocean)
The only marine national monument in the Atlantic is found off the coast of New England. The unique topography and ecology of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument (4,913 square miles) supports hundreds of marine species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. The canyons influence the distribution patterns of sharks as well as other highly migratory species like the endangered sperm, fin and sei whales. The seamounts provide shelter for predators, increased food, nurseries, and spawning grounds. More than ten species of shark, including great white sharks (vulnerable) and Greenland sharks, are known to utilize the feeding grounds of the canyon and seamount area.

Also on the Chopping Block: Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (Off the coast of Michigan in Lake Huron)

With a name like Thunder Bay, you can image the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary would be an ideal hangout for apex predators like sharks, but it is in fact the first marine sanctuary designated in the Great Lakes. It does, however, support a wide range of freshwater fish. The risk to this ecosystem from fossil fuel development has its own set of dangers, not the least of which is that fact that the Great Lakes make up 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply.

Preserve These Marine Habitats Now

These marine monuments and sanctuaries are important refuges for imperiled sharks and the multitude of other threatened and endangered species that call them home. Sharks play a key role in their marine ecosystems; any threat to their survival is a threat to the health and vitality of the entire environment where they live. If protections for these sensitive ecosystems are diminished or revoked, it could have devastating effects on our ocean wildlife and their habitats.

Act now to preserve our marine monuments and sanctuaries for sharks and all the wildlife they support!

[1] As defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Vulnerable species are defined as those facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Endangered species are those considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. For more information, visit: IUCN Red List information


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