Working to Conserve and Sustainably Manage Sharks
By Eric Schwaab
Thank you for your petition and concern about the sale, trade, and possession of shark and shark products, including shark fins. The Obama Administration shares your concern about the status of shark stocks and the sustainability of their exploitation in world fisheries, and is committed to improving their management and conservation.
Wasteful fishing practices can lead to devastation of vital living marine resources and economic hardship for the fishermen and communities that rely on the long-term, sustained use of these resources. As a top predator, sharks play an important role in maintaining a balance in marine ecosystems. Due to their biological and ecological characteristics, such as long lives, relatively late maturity, slow growth, and low reproductive rates, sharks present an array of issues and challenges for fisheries management and conservation. These same characteristics also make them particularly vulnerable to overexploitation.
The United States has prohibited shark finning, the removal of fins from a live shark and returning the remainder of the shark’s body to the sea, in the Atlantic Ocean since 2000; however, fins from sharks that are legally brought to shore can still be sold. The Administration has taken several important steps to improve the sustainable management of sharks in the United States and globally. As noted in the petition, on January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 to improve existing domestic and international conservation measures for sharks. The Act also requires that all sharks be brought to shore with all fins “naturally attached”. The Administration, through the Department of Commerce, is currently working to develop regulations to implement the Shark Conservation Act of 2010.
Additionally, and to the point of the petition, this Administration acknowledges the need to improve the health of sensitive shark populations. This is why the Administration has implemented domestic management measures for sharks, including: science-based quotas to increase or maintain shark populations; size limits to limit fishing pressure on juveniles; fishing closures to protect important reproduction and nursery areas; limits on the number of participants that can sell sharks commercially; restrictions on fishing gear to minimize accidental catch of vulnerable species; and development of rebuilding plans for shark populations declared as overfished or experiencing overfishing. For sharks considered to be especially vulnerable to fishing pressure, which includes 20 shark species in the Atlantic Ocean, the Administration has prohibited any and all take or harvest of these species. The Administration encourages public participation in the shark management process, including public hearings on proposed regulations and scientific assessments conducted to determine the health of shark populations.
Internationally, the United States continues to be a leader and actively promotes commitments that further the conservation of sharks based on scientific advice and a precautionary approach. In collaboration with our international partners, we have improved the data collection for sharks through national and regional programs, advanced stock assessment methods and life-history studies for sharks, and strengthened international measures prohibiting the retention, and sale of particularly vulnerable sharks. Over the past three years, the United States has introduced or co-sponsored recommendations and resolutions in many of the Regional Fishery Management Organizations, the United Nations, and other international fora to prohibit shark finning. In 2010, under the auspices of the Convention on Migratory Species, the United States signed an agreement with 11 other countries to coordinate international action on the threats faced by migratory sharks and to improve their species conservation status.
Finally, the United States has also taken a leadership role in shark conservation efforts through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), by actively engaging in processes to evaluate the status of sharks subject to trade and by making and supporting proposals by other countries to protect specific shark species that are threatened with extinction or where uncontrolled trade is incompatible with their survival.
Whether through efforts to improve conservation and management of sharks by prohibiting shark finning and protecting vulnerable species of sharks or by the unprecedented forward thinking demonstrated in the President’s National Ocean Policy, the Obama Administration recognizes the importance of all marine resources and continues to support innovative and conservation-minded efforts to achieve healthy oceans and fisheries worldwide.
Eric Schwaab is Acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management