Sea Shepherd Legal Securing Justice for the Sea – A 2016 Retrospective

At Sea Shepherd Legal, we are working to change the polices, practices, actions and inactions that imperil marine species — adding a new dimension to Sea Shepherd’s 40-year record of success.


Using litigation, policy development and public outreach, we work globally on many issues.  Here are just a few of our 2016 projects:

(1)  Conducted training and provided materials to assist the Republic of Palau with enforcing its new 500,000 km² marine sanctuary against rampant poaching.   For more information, see this press release: palau-workshop-i-press-release.

(2)  Demanded the listing of imperiled marine species under domestic and international regimes.  From manatees and oceanic whitetip sharks under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) to thresher sharks, silky sharks, and devil rays under CITES, we are insisting that legal regimes live up to their potential.  If environmental laws are just slogans, they might as well be thrown in the dumpster.  We mean to see these laws enforced.

(3)  Provided legal briefing to officials in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritania, Senegal and Singapore to halt ongoing illicit fishing activities discovered in Sea Shepherd Global’s Operation Icefish II and Operation Driftnet.

(4) Submitted amicus curiae brief in U.S. Court of Appeals to (1) support release of captive orca Lolita from Miami Seaquarium; (2) contest inappropriately narrow interpretation of “take” under the ESA; and (3) contest suggestion by lower court that captive animals are less susceptible to “take” than are wild animals.

(5) Opposed three applications by oil & gas exploration entities for “Incidental Take Permits” to harass (harm or even kill) Cook Inlet belugas.

(6) Filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to timely provide requested materials related to Cook Inlet belugas.

(7) Partnered with the Latin American Environmental Prosecutors Network to enhance protections for marine wildlife and habitat throughout the region.  Among other efforts, we secured 140,000-plus signatures to pressure the government of Brazil to take specific action to protect the iconic Guiana dolphin from bycatch and irresponsible coastal development.

 . . . and a whole lot more.


As the challenges mount, we rise to meet them.  This past year was overflowing with threats to marine ecosystems and wildlife.  Far from leaving us feeling overwhelmed, the dire state of affairs only strengthens our resolve.

Thank you to the entire Sea Shepherd family and its legion of supporters around the globe.  Here’s to 2017.  Bring it on.


SSL Backs Effort to Secure ESA Listing for the Oceanic Whitetip

Run a Google search for the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), and you’ll be inundated with sites describing how “dangerous” this shark is.  Tales of the whitetip preying on shipwrecked sailors have given it a reputation as a “menace” with a “bad attitude.”  One site, ostensibly dedicated to the dissemination of objective information, analogizes the whitetip to a calculating criminal:  “The oceanic whitetip may only have seven unprovoked attacks and two fatalities on the books, but that’s because it might be getting away with many of its crimes by not leaving any evidence.”

Amidst all the sensationalism, there is a grain of truth:  The oceanic whitetip is associated with crime, violence, and death.  Unfortunately for the shark (and for journalists looking for sexy headlines), the whitetip is the victim, not the perpetrator.


The oceanic whitetip shark. Photo credit: Joe Romeiro (2010).

As with so many other sharks, the oceanic whitetip is being devastated by the combined forces of targeted shark-fishing (including for the fin trade), by-catch, and habitat degradation.  Population studies reveal an alarming trend:  This most “dangerous” of sharks is being wiped out by people, and it’s happening at a dizzying pace.

In 2006, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the oceanic whitetip as “vulnerable” worldwide.  The IUCN came to this conclusion based on rigorous population studies, finding, inter alia, that the oceanic whitetip had: (1) suffered a population reduction of greater than or equal to 30% over the last 10 years or three generations, and (2) that a population reduction of greater than or equal to 30% was projected or suspected to be met within the next 10 years or three generations based on actual or potential levels of exploitation.  Those are big, frightening numbers — and the problem has only grown worse since the IUCN made its determination in 2006.

The good news is that international and domestic law contain provisions to protect species facing extinction or a threat thereof.  Internationally, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) serves as a bulwark against cross-border trade that exacerbates the risk of extinction.  Domestically, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides additional protections.

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In 2013, responding to a proposal co-sponsored by the United States, the Conference of the Parties agreed to list the oceanic whitetip in CITES Appendix II.  Appendix II contains species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.  Accordingly, international trade in Appendix II species requires a permit issued by the nation of export.  Under CITES, the exporting nation shall not issue a permit unless it has determined that trade will not be detrimental to survival of the species in the wild.   Although Appendix II protections are not as robust as the protections afforded under Appendix I (which, among other things, requires an import permit in addition to an export permit, building in a second layer of control), the 2013 CITES listing certainly represents progress for the oceanic whitetip.

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Now it’s time for the ESA to get into the mix.  Although CITES plays a key role in protecting species from threats related to international trade, many of the activities harming the oceanic whitetip fall outside of the CITES framework.  By-catch is perhaps the best example.  If tuna fleets incidentally catch sharks — throwing them back in the water dead or dying, as is usually the case — CITES has little to say about that.  Again, the convention only covers international trade.  Likewise, if nationals of a given country harvest oceanic whitetip for sale in the domestic markets of that same country, CITES is not implicated.  The ESA, on the other hand, starts to pick up the slack, covering  important non-trade-related activities (subject, of course, to jurisdictional limitations).

Good tidings may be on the way:  the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently made a positive 90-day finding on a petition to list the oceanic whitetip as endangered or threatened under the ESA.  The petition, filed by Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders), provided overwhelming evidence of the need for listing.  In its  90-day finding, NMFS made the threshold determination that the petition “present[ed] substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action of listing the oceanic whitetip shark worldwide as threatened or endangered may be warranted.”  81 Fed. Reg. at 1385.  The next step is a 12-month finding, wherein NMFS will determine whether listing is in fact warranted.  (Short of a worldwide listing, NMFS could also list “distinct population segments” of the oceanic whitetip.)

In the meantime, Defenders has not let up.  On Monday, Defenders filed comments on the positive 90-day finding, providing new scientific evidence of the whitetip’s plight and a variety of other information to encourage NMFS to make the right call.  Sea Shepherd Legal was honored to join these comments, standing alongside Defenders and several other prominent groups (including Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States, and WildEarth Guardians) to demand protection for this imperiled species.  Please click here to view the comments in their entirety.

To help support our legal work to save sharks and other marine species, please consider making a tax-deductible donation or contacting us for volunteer opportunities (

Sea Shepherd Legal Submits Comments Encouraging NMFS To List the Smooth Hammerhead and Bigeye Thresher under the ESA

Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL), together with Friends of Animals and Turtle Island Restoration Network, recently submitted comments encouraging the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the smooth hammerhead and bigeye thresher sharks as endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.  SSL’s comments are available here and here.


The smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena) is targeted for its fins and suffers from a high rate of by-catch mortality.

ca. 1990-2002, Cocos Island National Park, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica --- Bigeye Thresher Shark's Head --- Image by © Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis

Bigeye Thresher Shark’ — Photo credit: Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis

The smooth hammerhead and bigeye thresher are targeted primarily for their fins.  At its worst — and at its most typical — finning involves hacking off the shark’s fins and throwing back the carcass — while the sharks are alive.  (For a glimpse of this horrific practice, see  The process is as irresponsible as it is barbaric.  Shark populations, including populations of these two species, are crashing at alarming rates around the world.

The threat presented by shark finning is magnified by the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms at the global scale.  Despite the intense fishing pressure on these sharks—from directed commercial, artisanal, and recreational fishing, exacerbated via indiscriminate by-catch—laws protecting these species are anemic.  International agreements on sharks are few and far between.  Where they exist, these agreements lack regulatory teeth and enforcement power.  Laws at the national level are not much better.  Indeed, some of the biggest shark-fishing nations (e.g. Pakistan) lack any laws specific to sharks.  Other nations lack any meaningful capacity to enforce laws on the books.  Even the nations that seem to boast the combination of tailored legislation and enforcement power—like members of the European Union—wither under scrutiny.  Their laws are rife with loopholes and enforcement of even basic catch limits is grossly inadequate.

In short, existing regulatory mechanisms are part of the problem.  Laws are failing sharks in all corners of the world.

Help us protect sharks like the smooth hammerhead and bigeye thresher by donating now.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.

SSL Goes to Bat for the Common Thresher

On March 3, 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a positive 90-day finding on a petition to list the common thresher shark under the Endangered Species Act.  Based on information in the petition and available in NMFS’ files, NMFS found substantial evidence to suggest that a worldwide listing of the common thresher may be warranted.  NMFS placed particular emphasis on the common thresher’s continued decline due to recreational fishing, commercial fishing, by-catch, and direct catch associated with the trade in shark fins.

The common thresher stands out with its unique, whip-like caudal fin.

The common thresher stands out with its unique, whip-like caudal fin.

A thresher fin at market

A thresher fin at market

Although the positive 90-day finding is good news for the common thresher — and this shark could use some good news — it is too early to celebrate.  Under the ESA, a positive 90-day finding is simply a threshold decision indicating that further evaluation is merited.  Later, at the 12-month stage, NMFS could ultimately decide to reject the petition.

To bolster the case for listing, Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) joined forces with original petitioner Friends of Animals, as well as with Turtle Island Restoration Network and WildEarth Guardians.  We submitted extensive comments canvassing the many threats to the common thresher.  In particular, we highlighted the following factors:

  • Sharp population declines in significant portions of the common thresher’s range:  For example, recent studies of common thresher shark populations in two major regions, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, strongly suggest that the population has declined in these regions by 80% and 99%, respectively.
  • Overfishing by both the commercial and recreational sectors:  Thresher species (including the common thresher shark) make up approximately 2.3% of the Hong Kong shark fin market—the largest shark fin market in the world.  This equates to approximately 0.5 to 4.5 million sharks per year.  Recreational fisherman have also taken their toll.  The majority of recreationally-caught common thresher sharks are captured using a caudal-­based technique, in which the hook is placed in the shark’s tail fin and the fish is reeled in backwards.  This technique is incompatible with the shark’s respiratory system, which requires forward movement.  Caudal-based techniques are associated with high fatality rates, yet they continue to lead the pack in terms of popularity.
  • The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms:  Protective regulations exist in a limited number of jurisdictions, and even then enforcement is often weak and ineffective.
  • The common thresher’s intrinsic vulnerability:  Like most pelagic sharks, the common thresher is particularly vulnerable due to its long gestation period, slow growth, and relatively low fecundity.

Help us protect the common thresher and other sharks by making a donation.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.