Sharks have an exceedingly bad reputation for being terrifying, man-eating predators. But in reality, they are a vital part of the ocean's ecosystem, and their devastating decline needs more attention than ever. Although they're independent, capable animals, too many are dying at the hands of fishermen and in nets.
Soon, though, governments will have the chance to help move along conservation efforts for the oceanic whitetip shark, one of the most widespread species whose population is being decimated to the point where, in some places, it has been classified as "Critically Endangered," when a meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), a regional fisheries management organization responsible for managing tuna fisheries across 26 million square miles, convenes in La Jolla, California.
Tuna, which is also being exploited and overfished at an alarming rate, plays a huge role in the conservation of sharks because it is the longlines and nets used for tuna that the whitetips most often get snagged on. And evidence has shown that, thanks to a demand for status symbol shark fins in Asia, many fishermen cut off the fins of trapped sharks and throw them back in the water to die.
"Poor fisheries management is not only taking a toll on sharks," said Amanda Nickson, senior officer for International Policy with the Pew Environment Group. "Put simply, there are more boats chasing fewer fish, with a devastating effect on marine life as billions of unwanted or non-targeted animals are caught and discarded, dead or dying, back into the ocean. It is time for IATTC to take action to conserve sharks, set science-based total allowable catch limits for all tuna species and reduce fishing capacity in line with those limits."
The 20 government members who will meet for the IATTC will discuss measures to promote shark conservation, including immediate release of whitetips caught in nets and a ban on the wire leaders used on baited hooks--a leading cause of death for sharks.
"The plunging oceanic whitetip population exemplifies overall global shark decline," said Jill Hepp, manager of Global Shark Conservation at the Pew Environment Group. "The loss of these top predators can cause irreversible damage to the health of oceans. The good news is that, in the case of whitetips caught on fishing lines, there is a relatively easy fix. As custodians of the ocean, regional fisheries management organizations need to take action to protect these animals and the broader marine ecosystems they inhabit."