Sharks! Long feared, now they need protection from us

July 02, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

For several weeks, thousands of sharks have been arriving in shallow waters off Delaware and Chesapeake bays from as far away as the Caribbean Sea to give birth.

This annual ritual, which continues another several weeks as Atlantic Ocean waters warm up, has occurred for thousands of years, researchers believe.

Unlike past birthing seasons, however, this one is accompanied by considerable concern and discussion ashore about the future of sharks.

Many regulators, environmental ists and sportsmen -- and even some seafood merchants -- believe sharks in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico particularly are now being killed faster than they can reproduce.

As a group, sharks are unusually slow to reproduce, with many types not reaching sexual maturity for 25 or more years. Some give birth only every two years and then, only to an average of 10 or fewer young at a time.

How to slow the killing of sharks is the focus of debate going on now over a federal government proposal for protecting the feared, poorly understood predators.

Since the start of a federal government marketing campaign during the Jimmy Carter administration, sharks have been caught with abandon for their meat and fins.

Fins are particularly cherished by many Asians. In addition, sharks -- once largely ignored by American sport fishermen -- have emerged as a prized sport catch since the 1975 release of the thriller movie "Jaws."

The federal proposal being debated now -- three years in the making -- aims to halve commercial catches of 39 shark species 200 miles out from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as in the Caribbean Sea. The proposal is open to public comment until July 23, after which it is expected to be formalized.

The federal proposal also would establish annual quotas for commercial fishermen and daily catch limits for recreational fishermen.

It would ban the brutal, wasteful practice of "finning," in which commercially desirable fins are ripped from sharks, dead or alive. The rest of the definned shark is then tossed back into the ocean.

4 Federal regulators want a plan in place by fall.

Quotas are expected to be reached, and fishing temporarily halted, by the 1993 birthing season, said Michael E. Justen, who is helping prepare the shark plan for the U.S. Fisheries Service.

Getting the federal proposal before the public for discussion has taken more time than anticipated, partly, Mr. Justen said, because the fisheries service has been bogged down by efforts to protect many other commercially important but ailing species, such as Atlantic salmon and bluefin tuna.

Some say that outright banning of fishing for some shark species is necessary, a measure controversially cut from the proposal now being considered.

Still, the proposal is being welcomed.

Sonja Fordham, a fisheries specialist for the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation, says her group is "angry" that a ban is not being advanced, but calls the proposal "a good first step, considering there's no protection for them now."

Federal data show that commercial shark landings along the Atlantic and gulf coasts increased nearly eight-fold during the 1980s, to about 7,500 metric tons a year.

Overfishing already is causing declines, regulators say, with landings dropping to below 6,000 metric tons starting in 1990.

Declines are occurring despite the increasing numbers of fishermen, the fisheries service says.

Atlantic shark landings by recreational fishermen peaked at more than 5,000 metric tons a year in the mid-1980s but have since declined to less than 2,000 metric tons.

Not only are sharks targeted directly, but they also are falling prey to indiscriminate commercial fishing techniques, mainly "long-lining," where miles of hooks are set offshore.

Fishermen seeking swordfish, tuna and shrimp discarded an average of 16,000 metric tons of shark each year during the 1980s, or more than double the intentional shark catch, according to the fisheries service.

Strong evidence of sharks' rapid decline in recent years has been seen near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at Gloucester Point, Va., have been monitoring sharks in the mid-Atlantic region for nearly 20 years.

Catch rates at eight monitoring stations from around the mouth of the Chesapeake to about 75 miles offshore have declined by nearly 70 percent over the past decade, said Dr. Steve Branstetter, who helps run VIMS' shark ecology program.

And the catch, a measure of sharks caught per 100 hooks on the same "long-line" tackle used by commercial fishermen, dropped 25 percent during the three years while the federal management plan was being formulated.

For many unfamiliar with the sea, sharks carry the image of villains of the deep.

Once caught, however, they are a reasonably priced, boneless fish being sold increasingly in American grocery stores, restaurants and seafood markets.

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