ICCAT Must Do More to Protect our Oceans’ Top Predators

Published on: November, 18 2011 by January Jones – Huff Post Green

According to a new report released this week by Oceana , less than 1% of the highly migratory sharks reported caught in the Atlantic Ocean are protected from overfishing by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the group that’s charged with protecting them.

Hammerhead Shark imageAnd what’s more, the report indicates that three-quarters of the highly migratory shark species being caught in ICCAT fisheries are classified as threatened in parts of the Atlantic by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

That’s a heck of a lot of neglected sharks.

Some sharks, like tunas, travel long distances across the oceans, so their populations can’t be effectively managed by any one country. That’s where ICCAT comes in. Although ICCAT is the appropriate body to manage sharks in the Atlantic, Oceana’s new report shows that current efforts are grossly insufficient.

Most shark species in the Atlantic are vulnerable to overfishing because of their exceptionally low reproductive rates. Currently, ICCAT only has protections in place for a few species including hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks, although many other sharks are threatened, including porbeagle, silky, and shortfin mako sharks.

And these sharks are far from man-eating monsters, mind you they are top predators that keep the ecosystem in balance. When these sharks are overfished, it affects the entire the ocean food chain  and most likely not in a good way. Oceana scientists are present at the ICCAT meeting this week, and they are calling on the 48 countries that fish in the Atlantic to adopt greater measures to protect these vulnerable sharks.

The fishing countries of the Atlantic can no longer ignore the shark populations they are responsible for protecting. We should be scared for sharks – not of them – and ICCAT must do more to protect our oceans’ top predators.

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Lessons From Diving with Whale Sharks

Published on: July, 21st 2011 by Keith Addis, President of the board of directors at Oceana, Huffington Post – Lessons From Diving With Whale Sharks.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been side by side with hundreds of the biggest fish on Earth – Whale Sharks.

I’ve just returned from an incredible adventure in Cancun, Mexico, where every summer hundreds of these majestic giants gather under the full moon to feed on billions of fish eggs.

Whale shark Tofo MozambiqueI was in Belize a year ago where we encountered two Whale Sharks, but it was absolutely amazing to be swimming in the middle of an estimated 300 whale sharks within about a one-square mile area. It’s a deeply spiritual experience to be so close to these massive, domino-patterned leviathans, often flanked by giant manta rays.

Observing these spectacular animals in the wild is a wake-up call for us all that sharks around the world, including these giants, need our help. Sharks are being hunted ferociously for their fins, primarily for shark fin soup. Millions are inhumanely killed every year, the result being that many species are now threatened with extinction.

As apex predators, sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems everywhere. Sharks are slow-growing, late-maturing, long-lived and give birth to very few offspring during their life cycles, making them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation.

Without sharks, the ocean can and will get out of balance quickly, as was the case off the coast of North Carolina. According to a study published in Science Magazine by the late Dr. Ransom Myers, the disappearance of sharks there led to an explosion in the population of rays, which have subsequently wiped out virtually all the bay scallop fisheries — and the fishermen whose livelihoods had depended on the health and sustainability of this resource for over a century.

The good news is that the United States has made great headway in shark conservation in recent months. At the end of 2010, Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which prevents shark finning in U.S. waters.

But while shark finning is illegal in the U.S., current federal laws banning shark finning do not adequately address the issue of the shark fin trade. As a result, fins are being imported to the U.S. from countries with limited to zero shark protections in place. Legislation banning the sale and possession of shark fins passed recently in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Guam and is pending in California.

I’m really hoping that California follows the lead of its neighbors. Ending the trade of shark fins in the state would continue our country’s reputation as a leader in shark conservation and send a signal to the world that shark fins belong on a shark’s body, not in soup.

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Thousands of Gulf Sea Turtles Killed by Shrimp Trawls

Published on: June, 22 2011 – Susan Cohn Rockfeller, Huff Post Green – Thousands of Gulf Sea Turtles Killed by Shrimp Trawls.

Sea turtle Guantanamo imageImagine that you’re going for a swim in the ocean, when suddenly you’re scooped up by an enormous net that drags you under. Scrambling to find an escape, you realize you’re stuck, and you won’t be able to come up for air. There’s no way out.

This is the reality for many sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, who have been turning up dead in appalling numbers. Last year more than 600 sea turtles were found either dead or injured in the Gulf, which is more than six times the average over the last two decades. And already in 2011, more than 560 have washed up. And since only a miniscule portion of dead or injured sea turtles wash up on shore, the real number of turtles dying is enormous.

I was shocked to learn that while sea turtles have been undoubtedly affected by the massive oil spill last year, there’s another culprit: Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawls. Not all trawls in the Gulf shrimp fishery are required to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which are escape hatches that prevent sea turtles from drowning in trawl nets. Without TEDs, shrimp trawls are essentially sea turtle death traps.

Like you and me, sea turtles are air-breathers; when they get caught in fishing nets they may be unable to come up for air. Each of the six sea turtle species found in U.S. waters is listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which means that they may go extinct in the foreseeable future.

But did you know that under the Endangered Species Act, the government authorizes fisheries to injure or kill a specific number of sea turtles? That’s right, and more than 98 percent of all sea turtle interactions authorized to U.S. fisheries are given to the shrimp fishery.

The government assumed that TEDs are 97 percent effective and authorized the shrimp fishery to kill 1,451 loggerhead sea turtles. Oceana recently released evidence that so many shrimp trawls are not using the escape hatches properly that the number of loggerheads killed is likely thousands higher.

Loggerhead nesting populations in the U.S. are struggling — and these shrimp trawls aren’t helping.

The solution, as Oceana and other environmental organizations have pointed out, is simple: the government must require TEDs in all trawls, especially shrimp trawls, and enforce these regulations — or else shut down the Gulf shrimp fishery.

Sea turtles have been swimming in the oceans for millions of years, and now these ancient mariners are being unnecessarily pushed toward extinction. It’s time to give sea turtles a breather.

Susan Rockefeller is on the board of directors of Oceana, the international ocean conservation organization.

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