Federal rules imposed to reduce shark catch Overfishing, threats to habitat cut population to historically low levels


WASHINGTON - The federal government has announced rules that will reduce some commercial shark fishing by half and impose new limits on recreational fishermen.

With Atlantic shark populations at historically low levels because of overfishing and threats to their habitat, the rules by the National Marine Fisheries Service will affect about 150 commercial fishermen and thousands of recreational fishermen along the Atlantic coast primarily from Florida to North Carolina.

For South Florida shark fishermen, the new regulations mean the first six-month shark fishing season will end about three months early at 11:30 p.m. on April 7, and will remain closed until the second season begins July 1.

The rules set new limits on fishing for 39 species of sharks and bans intentional fishing for five species considered rare or vulnerable, including great white sharks made famous by the "Jaws" book and movies.

If those sharks are unintentionally caught, they must be released back to the ocean.

Slow rebuilding predicted

"We are doing everything we can to get things back in shape," said Rebecca Lent, chief of the Highly Migratory Species Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Rebuilding is going to be very slow for the coastal shark fishery."

Environmentalists hailed the rules, which were first proposed in December, as necessary and long overdue.

"We've been pushing the government to do this for about six years. Now, they're really stepping up to the plate," said David Hall, spokesman for the Center for Marine Conservation, a nonprofit group committed to protecting the ocean environment.

The Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a coalition of six conservation organizations, said the regulations were "desperately needed because sharks are overfished. In the past 20 years alone, populations of several Atlantic sharks have dropped 70 percent to 80 percent."

Shark fishermen also hailed the rules, which they said would protect the species for the future.

Henry Ciamotto, owner of the Snook Nook in Jensen Beach, Fla., noted that overfishing of sharks is worse than with other fish because they take longer to mature and bear fewer young. Sharks typically reach sexual maturity between 7- and 12-years old and have small litters. The sandbar shark takes nearly 30 years to reach sexual maturity.

"Sharks are not like rabbits. It takes years to get to that point," Ciamotto said.

Ciamotto discourages tourists from shark fishing, although he knows of some who fish them for sport - but release them.

"I just tell them it doesn't exist. I lie to them," he said. "It's looked upon as exploitation of a resource. You don't fool with our sharks. They're too important to our ecosystem."

Annual quota

The new rules set an annual quota on the catch of large coastal sharks at 1,275 metric tons, half the previous limit. The rules also create two six-month seasons and halt commercial shark fishing when half the annual total has been reached in any season.

The Marine Fisheries Service calculates that this year's first seasonal quota of 642 metric tons of large coastal shark has already been exceeded.

The rules also set an annual commercial limit of 1,760 tons for smaller coastal sharks such as blacknose and bonnethead, but the season for them remains open, said Gordon Helm, spokesman for the fisheries service.

In addition to the commercial restrictions, the rules impose a new bag limit of two large sharks per vessel per trip and a limit of two small coastal sharpnose sharks per fisherman. Sharpnoses are particularly popular in the Gulf of Mexico. The rules declare five shark species off limits: the whale, basking, sand tiger, bigeye sand tiger, and white shark.

"The unfortunate thing is that for some of these species it will take literally decades to recover. They have been fished down to pretty depressed levels," said Sonya Fordham, shark conservation specialist for the Center for Marine Conservation.

Shark fishing gained popularity in the 1970s after the movie "Jaws," Lent said.

RTC In the 1980s, as more traditional food fish - such as tuna and sword fish - were declining, the government and the fishing industry started promoting shark as an alternative food fish.

'We're more dangerous'

In addition, there has been an increase in popularity of shark fins for soup in Asian markets.

The government began cracking down on shark fishing four years ago and has made it illegal to "fin fish" - catching sharks and merely cutting off their fins.

"We think we've seen some signs of slowing in the decline because of the management that has been in effect since '93," Lent said.

Although the "Jaws," movies depicted the great white shark - and by implication other species - as voracious man-eaters, sharks rarely attack humans. "Your odds of being killed by a pig are greater than by a shark," Fordham said.

"They have an image of being the bad fish that swims the seas," said Tom Twyford, executive director of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club. "It's just the opposite. We're more dangerous to them."

! Pub Date: 4/06/97

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