MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Florida – Global leaders recently agreed to expand protections for more than two-thirds of the world’s shark population, with numbers rapidly declining due to insatiable demand for shark fins.
Closer to home, Florida fishermen are complaining that there are too many sharks, and NOAA is now reconsidering its limits on the amount of sharks that can be legally caught and killed.
Local 10 was on the water off the coast of Palm Beach when a team of marine scientists from FIU carefully reeled in an 8-foot-long adult female bull. The 300-pound shark was put into tonic immobility, oblivious to how biologists had gathered important data from her that could prove vital to the preservation of her species and all sharks.
“We really need to know how many sharks are out here because the shark population in general is very much in decline,” said FIU marine biologist Mike Heithaus. “And while we’re better off than most places here in the U.S., we can still do better.”
An acoustic transmitter has been inserted into the shark, so now they can track her every move.
“All we’re trying to do is understand which areas these animals actually use and how that kind of area use changes over time,” said FIU marine biologist Yannis Papastamatiou. “So how does day and night change? How does it change seasonally?”
The urgent research comes at a time when 37 percent of all sharks and 70 percent of species traded specifically for their fins are at risk of extinction due to overfishing.
On average, the world kills 100 million sharks a year.
FIU shark researcher Diego Cardenosa Zoomed with Local 10 News from Hong Kong, where he continues his pioneering work to develop protocols and tools to help law enforcement around the world crack down on the illegal shark fin trade.
“The state of shark populations around the world is definitely something we should be concerned about,” Cardenosa said. “We have visual identification guides, we have DNA import toolkits that can be used very easily to identify species in fins.”
Cardenosa’s work is even more important now that CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, voted last week to increase protection for 54 species of requiem and hammerhead sharks that are targeted for their fins.
“So it’s kind of opening the door wide open for more regulation and more protection for these specific species around the world,” he said.
In south Florida, the fight for protection continues due to pressure from commercial and recreational fishermen who say Florida’s Atlantic coast is too rough.
NOAA is now reassessing the number of sharks that commercial fishermen can catch and is considering increasing the retention limit from 45 large inshore sharks per vessel per cruise to 55 sharks, excluding sandbar sharks, which are listed as vulnerable.
According to Lauren Gaches of NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs, “NOAA Fisheries is currently developing a final rule to address quotas and retention limits and expects to publish the final rule in the Federal Register in the coming weeks.
Recreational anglers also want the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to increase its bag limit, which currently stands at one shark per person per day.
“We’re starting to get to a point where there’s an imbalance,” said shark tournament organizer Robert Fly Navarro.
They claim that shark conservation created a boom that now prevents them from landing their catch because sharks are stealing it.
“You lose 50 percent of what we hook on sharks,” Navarro said.
However, scientists are digressing.
“I wouldn’t call it a shark boom,” Papastamatiou said. “Remember, these were stocks that were historically overfished. So what you’re seeing is potentially a population recovery.”
Scientists agree that there has been a recent increase in human interaction with sharks, but also point to more people and more boats in the water.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Florida now has a record of more than one million registered boats.
“Just because sharks are taking more fish off the hooks doesn’t mean there are more sharks here,” Heithaus said.
It means they’ve gotten smarter.
“They’re getting a fish that’s already in trouble, they don’t have to fish,” said FIU doctoral student Candace Fields. “And they can just take a bite and they get almost free food.”
The team of researchers hope that this work can lead them to find ways for sharks and fishermen to co-exist. After all, a healthy ocean needs a healthy shark population.
“We have a large number of sharks,” Papastamatiou said. “Not many places can say that and it’s a sign of a good healthy ecosystem. So that’s something to be proud of, it doesn’t mean the job is done, but it’s a good sign.”
There is still a small snag with the CITES protection for sharks that world leaders just approved.
Thursday is the CITES plenary session, and both Japan and Canada are lobbying other countries to amend these protections. A final vote will take place.
Federal Register: Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; 2023 The Year of Commercial Shark Fishing in the Atlantic
Commercial shark fisheries in the Atlantic 2023: Quotas, retention limits and start date
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