Allison Cook, Alejandra Goyenechea, and Jane P. Davenport

Slicing the open ocean waters with its distinctive long, white-tipped fins is a wide-ranging top predator. The oceanic whitetip was once considered the planet’s most abundant shark species but is now one of the most threatened.  

Despite being protected under international and domestic law for years, the oceanic whitetip population is still declining and needs our help. Let’s take a deeper dive this Shark Week into why these sharks are important, what’s causing their declines and how you can help save them from extinction.

Group of oceanic whitetip sharks circling over reef
Valeria Mas

Where do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Live?

These sharks live in tropical and subtropical waters, in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. In the United States, it is found in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Pacific Islands. Oceanic whitetip sharks are a pelagic species, meaning they live offshore, in open waters. They prefer surface waters but have been reported swimming to depths of more than 1,000 meters.  

Oceanic whitetip sharks are also one of the most migratory pelagic sharks. Major tagging studies have tracked individual sharks traveling worldwide.  

What do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Eat?

As top predators, these sharks play a key role in keeping ocean ecosystems healthy. They typically consume cephalopods, like octopus and squid, and bony fish, like skipjack tuna. They are opportunistic feeders, however, and will eat just about anything, including sea birds, marine mammals, other sharks and even trash.  

Whitetip oceanic shark swimming over coral reef with groups of fish in the background
Valeria Mas

What is Happening to Oceanic Whitetip Sharks?  

Globally, this species has been declining for decades.  In the Gulf of Mexico, records from the 1990s show a population decrease of 98% since the 1950s. Between 1992 and 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated the global population decreased almost 70%. In 2019, the IUCN estimated the population had decreased by more than 98% globally, leading it to designate the species as endangered. Although this designation carries no legal protection, it is a red flag telling us the species is in big trouble.

Why are Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Declining?

Overfishing by commercial fisheries poses the most significant threat to the oceanic whitetip shark, which is targeted for its fins and meat. These sharks are also killed or injured when accidentally caught as bycatch. Whitetips are especially vulnerable because they tend to follow ships, seeking food dropped overboard. This makes them easy to trap in large nets or lines dragged behind fishing vessels. Because their fins are so valuable in the international fin trade, fishing vessels have little incentive to release them once caught. The oceanic whitetip is the seventh most traded shark species in the global fin trade.  

Like many other sharks, oceanic whitetips are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing due to their late maturity and slow reproduction. Female oceanic whitetip sharks mature around nine years of age. Pregnancy lasts 10 to 12 months and they birth an average of six live pups every other year. Although these sharks are relatively long-lived – up to 20 years – their life history means deaths far outpace births.

Group of oceanic whitetip sharks swimming over coral with yellow algae
Valeria Mas

What Are We Doing to Save These Sharks?

Defenders of Wildlife has long worked for stronger international and domestic protections. In 2013, we successfully advocated for the species’ listing in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). In 2019, we successfully advocated for its listing in Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). We continue to advocate for better reporting and better enforcement of these international regulations.

In 2015, we petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the oceanic whitetip shark under the Endangered Species Act. Our efforts came to fruition in 2018 when NMFS listed the species as threatened. Defenders also supported the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2022, which prohibited commercial trade in shark fins and shark fin products in the U.S. to ensure the U.S. does not contribute to the global shark fin trade that is driving the oceanic whitetip and many other sharks towards extinction.

How You Can Help Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

As important as these protections are they are, unfortunately, not enough. Right now, NMFS is seeking comment on a proposed rule to give the oceanic whitetip shark additional protections under the ESA. The comment period runs through July 15 so add your voice now!

Group of oceanic whitetip sharks swimming over coral reef with fish surrounding them
Valeria Mas

Oceanic whitetip sharks are just one of many shark species in drastic decline. Worldwide, 100 million sharks are killed every year. Here are other ways you can help oceanic whitetip sharks and other imperiled marine wildlife:

  • Take Sharks Off the Menu: Raise awareness and avoid consuming shark meat or shark fin soup. Shark fins come from all types of sharks including imperiled species.
  • Check the Label: Read labels to ensure your products are shark-free. Shark cartilage is labeled as chondroitin. Shark liver oil is found in supplements as well as cosmetics and is labeled as squalene or squalane. If in doubt, ask the manufacturer!
  • Buy Sustainable Seafood: Only purchase seafood you know was caught in a sustainable, bycatch-free way. If you aren’t sure where to start, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a trustworthy certification source.
  • Dive Responsibly: Choose responsible snorkel and dive operators for any undersea adventures. Always treat wild animals with respect by keeping a safe distance. 
  • Pick Up and Reduce Trash: Help keep our oceans clean and prevent wildlife from eating garbage by properly throwing your trash away. Reduce your use of single-use plastics and recycle plastic, glass and aluminum whenever you can.


A Cook Headshot

Allison Cook

Content Writer

Areas of Expertise: Communications, writing for the blog and website

Allison joined Defenders of Wildlife in 2023 after working for Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation

Alejandra Goyenechea headshot

Alejandra Goyenechea

Senior International Counsel
Alejandra Goyenechea's primary focus is in CITES, CMS, RFMO's, wildlife trafficking and other international wildlife conservation issues, with an emphasis on Latin America.
Jane Davenport headshot

Jane P. Davenport

Senior Attorney
Jane Davenport’s litigation and legal advocacy work for Defenders focuses on two main areas: first, protecting marine species such as sharks, sea turtles, and marine mammals from direct and incidental take in fisheries; and second, protecting freshwater aquatic species from habitat destruction and pollution from surface coal mining.

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