The boat rocks gently from side to side as the mid-summer storm starts to roll in. While many boats would head back to shore and call it quits for the day as the rain begins to pelt down, the crew of this vessel instead dons rainjackets and continues their work under the cold water that is now pouring out of the clouds. Such is the life of a fisher.
While many might joke that the ocean is the one who makes all the rules – whether they catch something or not at the end of the day – the true rulemaker is whoever governs that particular body of water. Since this boat is currently sitting in the US Atlantic Ocean, it falls under the jurisdiction of many governing bodies including the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). This federal agency, informally known as NOAA Fisheries, works to conserve, protect, and manage marine resources. And just recently it released a draft report on the state of the highly migratory species in the Atlantic, including sharks.
The US Atlantic Ocean actually has some of the best-managed and sustainable shark fisheries in the world, using a range of science-based tools to effectively manage their fisheries: stock assessments, annual quotas, size and retention limits, gear restrictions, area closures, eporting requirements, and so much more. In 2018, 94 percent of all US Atlantic shark landings were from six species that are neither overfished nor subject to overfishing. (To learn more about the Atlantic shark fishing industry, read here)
Since the US is such a prominent leader in promoting the global conservation and management of sharks, this NMFS review of the Atlantic shark fishery (including revisiting commercial shark fishery vessel permits, trips targeting or retaining sharks, shark landings, dealer permits, and markets) comes to no surprise. “As part of the overall review of the current state of the shark fishery, NMFS examined all aspects of commercial and recreational shark fisheries conservation and management, shark depredation, and additional factors affecting the shark fishery,” the government notice states. “As a comprehensive review of the shark fishery, the SHARE document identifies areas of success and concerns in the fishery and identifies potential future revisions to regulations and management measures. NMFS anticipates that revisions to the regulations and/or management measures would occur via future rulemaking and would include appropriate opportunity for public comment.”
The management approach of this region allows for some flexibility and adjustments depending on what commercial fishers and dealers —along with reports from anglers and other species information and data on the amount of time and gear spent fishing— say. The available information isn’t looking too good, stating that, “catch of available quota and participation in the commercial shark fishery has dramatically declined from historical levels.”
Sharks face a myriad of threats that are causing their stock numbers to decline, such as unsustainable overfishing and bycatch, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and a demand for shark parts such as their fins. The NMFS has taken this into account, analyzing additional factors beyond the Federal shark fishery including other fisheries, state shark fin sale prohibitions, and binding international recommendations. In the US Atlantic, fishers have been banned from shark finning—the practice of removing only the fins and dumping the rest of the shark’s body at sea—since 1993. According to the NOAA website, “the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 and Shark Conservation Act of 2010 further prohibits any vessel in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone from shark finning. All sharks, with the exception of smooth dogfish under certain circumstances, must be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached. It is also illegal to have a fin aboard a fishing vessel unless it is naturally attached.”
Tackling these issues is a surefire way to save sharks. But as management of sharks and their relatives allows for certain populations to bounce back, it begs the question many have been asking for years now: are we ready for that? An article published in 2019 aptly pointed out, “it is important to consider potential negative consequences of increased human-wildlife conflicts as recovery occurs.” Fishers know all about that, with shark depredation (when a shark eats or preys upon fish that are caught on fishing gear) a growing concern in a wide variety of commercial and recreational fisheries. “While the number of reports of depredation have increased, the underlying cause of the increase is uncertain — it could be due to an increase in the number of sharks as stocks rebuild; a learned behavior by sharks as they recognize motors, fishing techniques, or shark feeding locations as a source of food (this learned behavior is found in other animals such as marine mammals); an increase in the number of people using social media to report the depredation; or any combination of the above,” explains the report.
One of the most important ways the general public can help out sharks and their relatives is to have a say in how they are protected and conserved. This can be done through voting for politicians who have ocean policies in mind, but also by speaking up when possible. Members of the public can currently submit comments on the NMFS report and sign up for the December 8th, 2021 webinar/conference call at fisheries.noaa.gov.