The Beacon

Blog Tags: Bycatch

Save Shark Week’s Stars

greatwhite_noaa

Great white sharks keep the oceans healthy and balanced ©NOAA

Whether you fear them or admire them, most people have an instant reaction when they hear great white shark.  

Intrigue, mystery, and terror have guided attention on great white sharks since they lit up the screens in the 1975 thriller “Jaws.” The film made history 37 years ago for its chilling characterization of these powerful sharks, and swimming in the open ocean has never been the same since.

Great whites are making history once again, this time for their globally declining populations from bycatch in commercial fisheries, capture in beach protective nets, and slaughter for their fins, teeth, and jaws in the shark fin and curio trade.

Here on the US West Coast, new scientific studies have shed light on the status of great white sharks off California and Baja California, Mexico. Our great white sharks are even more unique than we thought; in fact they are genetically distinct and isolated from all other great white sharks around the world. They congregate off Mexican Islands and the “red triangle” off Central California (including the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes, and Point Sur), and make extensive offshore migrations to the distant “white shark Café” and even to the Hawaiian Islands.

But, sadly there may be as little as a few hundred adult great white sharks remaining in this population, far less than anyone expected. This low population alone puts these great whites at great risk of extinction from natural and human-caused impacts. Continued existence of these West Coast great white sharks is threatened by their low population size, inherent vulnerability to capture, slow growth rate, low reproductive output, and the ongoing threats they face from human activities. This is why Oceana is petitioning the federal government and the state of California to list this population of iconic sharks on the Endangered Species List.

What is threatening great white sharks off California and Mexico?

Young great white sharks are un-intentionally caught as bycatch in commercial fishing entangling nets. Set and drift gillnets--which together target California halibut, yellowtail, white seabass, thresher sharks and swordfish--catch great white shark pups in their nursery grounds.

Since 1980, over 10 great white shark pups have been reported being caught in these nets every year. The scary part is that monitoring of bycatch on these fishing vessels is very low so take of these pups remains underreported. In other words, more great white sharks are caught than we are aware.

Additionally, young great white shark “pups” caught in their nursery grounds off the Southern California coast have the second highest mercury level tested on record for any sharks worldwide. These mercury levels exceed six-fold the established thresholds where harmful physiological effects have been documented in other marine fish. Levels of harmful contaminants of PCBs and DDTs in their liver tissue are the highest observed in any shark species reported to date globally.

Endangered species status will bestow additional protections to white sharks, including better monitoring and management to reduce fishery bycatch and additional research to further understand these fascinating top predators of the sea.

As much as we may fear them for their bad rap, we need great white sharks to keep our oceans healthy. Just as wolves keep deer populations under control, great white sharks play a critical top-down role in structuring the marine ecosystem by keeping prey populations in check, such as sea lions and elephant seals, benefiting our fisheries and abundant wildlife.

Listing the West Coast population of great white sharks on the Endangered Species List will help us learn more about the lives and threats of these amazing animals through additional research funding and protection measures.

Please help us in our efforts to protect US West Coast great white sharks from extinction by signing a letter of support for their listing on the Endangered Species Act.


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Exciting News for Turtles

Kemps Ridley sea turtle

Kemps Ridley sea turtle

Amanda Keledjian is a marine scientist at Oceana.

This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a proposed regulation that would help prevent sea turtle deaths from shrimp fishing by requiring all skimmer trawls operating in the Gulf of Mexico to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs).

Oceana and other concerned organizations welcome this exciting news after having asked NMFS to address ongoing sea turtle mortalities and enforce its own protective regulations that are crucial to the recovery and survival of these threatened and endangered species. Turtle excluder devices have effectively reduced the number of sea turtles that drown as a result of commercial fishing activities each year, and NMFS estimates that this new rule could save more than 5,500 sea turtles!  

When properly attached to fishing nets, TEDs act as an escape hatch and allow captured turtles to swim freely away while shrimp accumulate in the net. However, many skimmer trawl boats have been exempt from TED requirements and were instead restricted to towing nets for shorter periods of time.  Despite their proven effectiveness, it has taken many years for NMFS to require TEDs in fisheries that are known to harm turtles, with a long history of litigation surrounding this contentious issue. 


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Victory for Vulnerable Porbeagle Sharks

porbeagle shark

This porbeagle is pleased. © Doug Perrine / WWF

October was a month full of shark protections, and we’re excited that the trend seems to be continuing into November.

Today, the EU has announced important measures that will protect porbeagle sharks, which are threatened by overfishing.

The new laws will protect porbeagles throughout EU waters, where previous regulations only applied in certain areas. Today’s measures make all fishing for porbeagles illegal and requires that any sharks caught accidentally be released immediately.

Porbeagles are heavily fished for their fins and meat, and because they take a long time to reproduce, they recover from overfishing extremely slowly. Estimates suggest that porbeagle populations in the Mediterranean have declined by 99% since the 1950s.

While this is great news, there is still more to be done to protect vulnerable porbeagles. “The protection of porbeagles by the EU represents an important step for the conservation of this species. However, given its highly migratory nature, if porbeagles are to recover, similar actions must follow at the international level,” said Dr. Allison Perry, wildlife marine scientist with Oceana.

We’re particularly excited about the timing of this measure because it comes right before this month’s meeting of ICCAT, an international commission with the authority to enact shark protections across the Atlantic Ocean.

We want the U.S. to call for international protections for porbeagles and other vulnerable shark species. You can help us by speaking up for sharks!


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Thursday Trivia: Flatback Sea Turtles

flatback sea turtle

A flatback sea turtle. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

We’re down to the last sea turtle in our trivia series, and it’s the least understood species of all – the flatback.

Flatback sea turtles nest only in Australia, and as a result of their limited range they are are poorly understood and at serious risk. Fortunately, Australia is working hard to protect large portions of the flatback’s habitat.

In addition to their namesake flat shells, flatbacks can be recognized by their olive-grey tops and yellow bellies. These turtles are known to float on the surface of the ocean, sunning their shells, often with birds on their backs. Flatbacks eat primarily fish, mollusks, and sea squirts.

Flatback turtles are caught accidentally in fishing nets, and they made up the majority of turtle bycatch in the Northern Prawn Fishery until turtle excluder devices – i.e. escape hatches -- were introduced. Other threats to flatbacks include coastal pollution and habitat degradation.

Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe. You can learn more about flatback sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.

If you can tweet us the name of every type of sea turtle, you could win a tote bag. That’s it for our sea turtle themed trivia! We’ll be back next week with more fun facts about other ocean animals. 


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Thursday Trivia: Green Sea Turtle

green sea turtle

Actresses Angela Kinsey and Rachael Harris swim with a green sea turtle. © Tim Calver

Green sea turtles are the most common type of marine turtle in tropical and subtropical waters (How many countries do they nest in? It’s this week’s trivia question on Twitter, so answer now to win!)

Green sea turtles begin their lives on sandy beaches. Every year, females return to the beaches where they themselves were born to leave their eggs buried in the sand. After six or eight weeks, the hatchlings use their egg tooth, which later falls out, to break out of the shell. All of the eggs in a clutch hatch at the same time, and the hatchlings make their way together to the ocean.

This hatching process means that young green sea turtles are often eaten by predators like ghost crabs, gulls, sharks, and dolphins. Those that survive live in the deep ocean for a few years and then move to shallower waters along coastlines and reefs. Young green sea turtles eat animals like jellyfish, crabs, and snails, but adults, unlike most types of sea turtles, eat only plants.

Green sea turtles in Florida and the Pacific side of Mexico are considered endangered by the IUCN; the other global populations are classified as threatened. One of the biggest threats to green sea turtles is accidental capture in fishing gear, also known as bycatch. Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch and protecting habitat.

You can learn more about green sea turtles -- and hundreds of other marine animals -- from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.


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Thursday Trivia: Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

kemp's ridley sea turtle

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle. © Oceana/Cory Wilson

Starting today, we’ll be doing a weekly trivia feature of one of the fascinating species that lives in the oceans. Today’s animal is the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest and most endangered species of sea turtle. These turtles are usually solitary and live primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, sometimes venturing up the Eastern Seaboard.

The relatively small range of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is one of the reasons its population has been declining. When population concentrations are high enough, females come onshore to lay their eggs arrive together in mass landings (the name of these landings is our weekly trivia question on Twitter, so answer now to win!) Eggs and hatchlings make easy prey for dogs, herons, and humans—and some cultures believe sea turtle eggs are aphrodisiacs.

Adult sea turtles are particularly at risk of drowning after being accidentally caught in the nets of shrimp trawlers and other fishermen. Adding turtle excluder devices to nets allow turtles to escape and have made a difference in turtle bycatch deaths, although these rates are still high. Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe.

You can learn more about Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia and from the Encyclopedia of Life.


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CEO Note: A New Victory for Sustainable Seafood and Healthy Oceans

I have some great news to share with you today. After a long legal battle, Oceana has succeeded in compelling the the federal government to reliably measure bycatch on the East Coast. Bycatch is the fish and wildlife that is thrown overboard, dead or dying, in the process of catching seafood.

Why is this important? Bycatch is one of the greatest problems facing the oceans today. It damages marine ecosystems by needlessly killing fish and wildlife, and it contributes to overfishing, further threatening our wild seafood supply. Worldwide, 16 billion pounds of bycatch are thrown overboard every year. This waste is tragic and completely unnecessary. The government needs to know the extent of bycatch in order to control it.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service is required by law to count and report bycatch, but until Oceana’s legal victory, its Northeast region refused to do so. After a clear decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the federal government will establish a clear system for reporting bycatch, including determining how many observers needed on board commercial fishing ships in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Oceana has fought bycatch for a decade now, and our campaigns have succeeded in saving thousands of sea turtles from shrimp trawls and longlines in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, as well as multitudes of birds, sharks, dolphins and fish from illegal driftnets in the Mediterranean.

With your support, we’re making the oceans a safer place for wildlife and a better source of sustainable seafood.


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Victory: Court Rules in Favor of Oceana on Bycatch

© Oceana/ Jesus Renedo

Great news for the oceans: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled in favor of Oceana in a suit that will require commercial fisheries from North Carolina to the Canadian border to monitor and report the amount of bycatch, or untargeted marine life, they discard.

This victory may seem like a small step, but it is a triumph against one of the biggest problems facing our oceans today. Bycatch is a major player in the destruction of marine ecosystems, and occurs when fishing gear indiscriminately traps marine life in nets, trawls, and fishing lines.

Tons of fish are wasted and thousands of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks and sea birds are injured or killed every year as bycatch. While the new law does not place limits on bycatch, it represents a crucial and long-awaited step in increasing the transparency in commercial fishing.

“For more than 15 years NMFS has violated the law, managing America’s fisheries without reliable information about how much fish and other marine wildlife is being shoveled over the side of boats, often dead or dying,” said Gilbert Brogan, northeast representative for Oceana. “This ruling is a significant step towards improving the management of U.S. fisheries in the Atlantic.”

Congratulations to everyone who helped win this victory for more abundant oceans!


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U.S. Gov’t Fails to Protect Sea Turtles, Again

A loggerhead hatchling in North Carolina. © Oceana/Cory Wilson

While the U.S. government continues to dawdle, loggerhead sea turtles continue to suffer. (Yes, they need your help!)

Yesterday the U.S. government failed to meet its legal deadline for issuing a final rule providing additional protections for loggerhead sea turtles, whose populations have faced severe declines over the last decade.

Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network filed legal petitions in 2007 urging the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to uplist North Pacific and northwest Atlantic loggerheads from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

Then, a year ago, the government proposed to list loggerheads as endangered in response to a court-ordered settlement over prior delays. It has now failed to take timely action by missing the legal deadline to issue a final rule within one year.


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Not What You’d Call a Spring Chicken

Wisdom the albatross. © U.S. Geological Survey

Here’s a story to make you smile: the oldest wild bird in the country is a new mom -- again.

The United States Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday that 60-year-old Wisdom, a Laysan albatross and the oldest known wild bird in the United States, is a new mother. Wisdom lives in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific northwest of the main Hawaiian island.

Albatrosses lay just one egg a year, and after a year in which they have successfully raised a chick, the birds may take a year off from breeding. Not Wisdom. She also nested in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Officials said she probably has raised 30 to 35 babies in her lifetime.

Wisdom’s longevity is a hopeful sign amid otherwise distressing trends for the seabirds. Nineteen of the 21 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. Major threats to the birds include plastic pollution in the ocean and capture in long-line fisheries. The birds ingest marine debris, mostly plastic, and feed it to their chicks, lessening their chance of survival.

Let’s hope more birds live as long as Wisdom. Help their chances: take our pledge to reduce your plastic use if you haven’t already.


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