Atlantic shark populations show sharp drop, study finds

Researchers say decline could have important impact on other species

January 17, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Shark populations in the northwest Atlantic Ocean have plunged by more than half since scientists began keeping careful track in 1986, with species such as the hammerhead and great white falling more than 75 percent, researchers are reporting.

Such an abrupt decline in the ocean's dominant hunters could substantially alter marine food chains in ways that are impossible to predict and might take decades to reverse, researchers and other experts said.

The researchers, from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, ascribed the drop to intensifying commercial and recreational fishing for sharks, which reproduce slowly compared with other oceanic fish. They describe their findings today in the journal Science.

The Dalhousie researchers, led by doctoral candidate Julia K. Baum, said similar declines had probably occurred elsewhere and "pervasive overfishing of these species may initiate major ecological changes."

They said there was no evidence that the decline was the result of any natural cycle, partly because similar trends had been recognized in the Pacific and other waters under heavy fishing pressure.

Other biologists had reported decreased sharks in particular coastal areas, but experts not involved in the new study said it provided the first detailed overview of an oceanwide decline with broad implications.

"This is a very important synthesis," said Dr. James F. Kitchell, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in the role of predators in ecosystems. "Like the ax and the plow, the hook and the net can create major changes in ecological structure and function. We've been fishing the top off the food web."

The effects on other species are unknown but could last for generations, other experts said.

"It's a giant experiment, and we're not just playing in the laboratory here," said Dr. Robert E. Hueter, the director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. "We're playing with the future of our marine food resources."

Shark experts said the decline in sharks was unlikely to affect the number of attacks on humans, which remain rare.

In the area studied, which included coastal and deep waters from Newfoundland to northern Brazil, only mako sharks showed no substantial drop in numbers, the scientists said.

The researchers found the trends by using various statistical models to analyze catch records from American vessels pursuing tuna and swordfish with longlines - strands that are miles long and carry hundreds of baited hooks.

Sharks are usually an unintended catch for such fleets - which changed gear a decade ago to allow sharp-toothed sharks to break loose - but the catch rate provides a barometer of their abundance, Baum said. The Dalhousie researchers said they accounted for the change in fishing gear in their analysis.

The main strain on shark populations comes from European boats that fish for sharks because of the growing popularity of their meat and from recreational fishing, Baum said. Federal regulations restrict shark fishing by American boats.

Big declines in sharks were found in coast-hugging species such as hammerheads and deep-ocean wanderers such as the thresher, with its distinctive elongated sickle-shaped tail fin.

The number of threshers has dropped 80 percent since 1986, and even then the number was below what it was in the 1950s, the study's authors said in interviews. The population of great white sharks has declined 79 percent since 1986, they said.

But hammerheads appear to have fared worse, with a decline of 89 percent from 1986 to 2000.

Some researchers expressed skepticism about this finding, saying these sharks tend to concentrate near coasts in waters not well scoured by longline tuna and swordfish boats.

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