The Speed of Sharks: Protecting Slow Growing Fish in a Rapidly Changing World

Written By
Guest Blogger

Today, our blog comes from Sonja Fordham who directed Ocean Conservancy’s shark conservation work from 1991 to 2009. She’s now based just up the block from our DC headquarters, running Shark Advocates International, a non-profit project of The Ocean Foundation. Learn more about Sonja’s work from the Shark Advocates Facebook page and website: Sonja is live-tweeting about Shark Week programming; follow @SharkAdvocates for conservation policy tidbits and ideas for helping sharks of all shapes and sizes.

Shark Week 2017 was off with a bang Sunday night with the much-hyped race between Michael Phelps and a great white shark.  As expected, the shark won.  But who’s winning in the bigger picture?

The “sharks” (including sawfishes, stingrays, skates, mantas, ratfishes, etc.) make up a reasonably diverse group. Many species can swim faster than a person, but they tend to grow slowly, leaving them ill-equipped to respond quickly to modern day perils.

Indeed, many shark populations are at risk from overfishing that has been allowed through inadequate regulations and lacking political will. To make matters worse, U.S. laws and commitments that have helped many shark populations begin to recover are now increasingly under attack. Shark Week seems like a great time to check the status of some of the fastest moving, slowest growing, and most endangered sharks of U.S. waters, and let you know how you can help.

Let’s start with the fastest shark of all–the shortfin mako. This species has been clocked at upwards of 40 mph and yet can’t outswim the fishing vessels that pursue them for meat, fins or sport.  Makos are prized by both commercial and recreational fishermen. Like most sharks, makos have relatively low reproductive rates and can be easily overfished.  Scientists estimate that female shortfin makos don’t mature until around age 18, are pregnant for up to 18 months, and usually give birth to just a dozen or so pups every three years. Despite this value and vulnerability, most of the top mako fishing nations–including Spain and Portugal–don’t set mako fishing quotas. The U.S. has mako catch limits, but they alone aren’t enough to safeguard this highly migratory species. Crucial opportunities for Atlantic-wide shortfin mako conservation will unfold over the coming months as international fishery managers receive updated population status reports and scientists’ recommendations for action. Follow #MakoMonday on Twitter to see how conservation groups are partnering to secure groundbreaking catch limits for this heavily fished shark species, and/or consider signing the Shark Trust’s petition to help us achieve this goal.

Another fast-moving, classic-looking shark that’s at risk off the U.S. east coast is the dusky shark. Ocean Conservancy helped secure the first limits on this and other Atlantic coastal sharks back in the ’90s. Fishermen haven’t been allowed to keep dusky sharks for two decades, but unfortunately that rule hasn’t been sufficient to ensure population recovery, as incidental mortality and illegal landings–often a result of species misidentification–continue to occur. Dusky sharks are also thought to produce pups only every three years, but–compared to makos–they start later (around age 20) and have even fewer (three to 12). New fishing rules and educational programs to better protect dusky sharks are being rolled out at the federal level, but need to be mirrored by Atlantic states because dusky sharks give birth in these waters (out to three miles from shore). Fishery managers from all Atlantic states will consider such actions in October. In the meantime, letters urging East coast governors to do more for dusky sharks are needed to help ensure effective protection, before it’s too late.

The sustainability of both mako and dusky sharks (and other U.S. marine fish) also depends on keeping our sound, national fisheries law in tact. You can help by supporting efforts by Ocean Conservancy and other conservation groups to defend the integrity of the MSA–the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Now to an Arctic shark that moves much more slowly (usually). Chances are you caught the news last year about the Greenland shark being the world’s longest lived vertebrate, as scientists estimated the species could live about 400 years, and might not mate until 150! What you probably didn’t hear is that–thanks to a U.S. proposal–scientists from countries that fish in the Northwest Atlantic are reviewing those findings and all sorts of data on Greenland sharks to come up with some advice on how fishery managers might protect this highly vulnerable species. A decision (by the regional fisheries body) won’t come until the fall of 2018, but government officials in Canada, Iceland, Greenland, and the European Union, need to know in the meantime that such measures have public support–and the U.S. should be encouraged to continue to champion Greenland shark protections.

My last example–the endangered smalltooth sawfish–serves as an important reminder that “flat sharks” (rays and skates) need love too. The sawfishes are among the world’s most endangered marine animals. Ocean Conservancy submitted the petition that led to the listing of smalltooth sawfish under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2003. Since then, there have been exciting research findings and encouraging signs that this population may well be increasing. At the same time, however, the ESA is under attack from bills that could weaken its provisions, and conservationists need your help to defend it. Ocean Conservancy efforts to restore the Gulf of Mexico and reduce marine debris can also help protect sawfish and many other threatened shark and ray species.

Shark Week comes at you fast. The 2018 edition will be here before we know it. While people are not really racing sharks, the removal of sharks from our oceans is outpacing their ability to replenish populations. Conservationists need your help to ensure that–by the time next summer rolls around–the remarkable species featured here (and many more) are moving swiftly out of the danger zone and towards a more secure future.

Thank you for your help!

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