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.
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.
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.
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