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Sharks Beware

Peter Klimley

Sharks for the Future

By the end of the 1980s, scientists such as Jack Musick of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Sonny Gruber of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science began to voice concern over the unmanaged expansion of the shark fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean, considering the vulnerability of the species to overfishing. In 1989, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began to develop a management plan for the sharks of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. This plan was implemented in 1993 as the Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean. The plan was directed at the management of 39 species in three categories: large coastal sharks, small coastal sharks and pelagic sharks.

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The spiny dogfish, though captured in great numbers, was not included in this plan. This is unfortunate, as the species has the same life-history properties as many of the species listed. However, the state Fisheries Management Councils have put together a management plan for this species during the past two years. Quotas have been set for the commercial fisheries and bag limits for the recreational fisheries for the large coastal and pelagic sharks to lessen the fishing pressure on these species. Commercial fishers are required to hold a federal permit to fish for sharks. Importantly, fishers are required to report the number of each species captured each fishing trip. This latter regulation will permit the NMFS to monitor catch per unit on an annual basis and regulate fishing pressure based upon knowledge of whether catch is increasing or decreasing annually. Finally, the plans prohibit the wasteful practice of "finning," by which only the fins are retained and rest of the body is discarded as bycatch. Merry Camhi's Sharks on the Line gives a summary of these regulations and a discussion of intricacies of managing shark fisheries state by state along the eastern coast of the U.S.

The state of our knowledge about sharks must improve if the growth of fisheries is to continue rather than collapse. First of all, adequate species-identification guides are needed so that accurate fisheries statistics can be collected. Management must be international in nature as many of the species are highly migratory and travel across jurisdictional boundaries, making the collection of standardized fisheries statistics difficult. Finally, the long life span and slow growth of the species make it impossible to assess the effect of management strategies until they have been in place for decades. Many management tools are available and currently being used in different countries, yet management plans for sharks and rays are only in place in a few countries. These tools include the establishment of quotas, restriction of entry into the fisheries by issuing licenses, closures of geographical areas used as shark nurseries, fishing seasons, shark-size and gear restrictions, and bag limits. I hope that in the future we will carefully manage these important fisheries so that we do not repeat our mistakes of the past.

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