In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the 2016 Atlantic shark commercial fishing season will open on January 1st for the fourth year in a row. This marks the continuation of a change implemented in 2013, when the traditional July 1st start date was brought forward six months.
The 2016 Atlantic shark commercial fishing season
NOAA’s announcement sadly ignores the concerns of scientists and marine conservation groups, which think the earlier Atlantic shark commercial fishing season season may already have had a devastating impact on Florida’s lemon shark populations in particular. According to researchers at the Bimini Biological Field Station, lemon sharks living all along the eastern seaboard, from the Carolinas to the Bahamas, congregate in large numbers off the coast of Florida between January and April to mate, particularly near Jupiter in Palm Beach County.
During this aggregation period, the sharks make easy targets for commercial fishermen. Previously, this wasn’t an issue, as the later fishing season meant that the lemon sharks had already mated, pupped and dispersed by the time the first shark-fishing boat left the harbor. Since 2013, however, fishermen with the correct permits have been able to exploit the Jupiter lemon sharks with impunity. Breeding stocks have been severely depleted as a consequence, and local dive centers have reported a marked decline in lemon-shark sightings.
Sharks tagged in previous years by the Bimini Biological Field Station are no longer being re-detected at their Floridian breeding grounds. Even before the introduction of the new fishing season, studies reported a 10 to 15 percent annual decline in re-detection rates. In 2011, 2,614 detections of tagged sharks were recorded off Jupiter; in 2013, just four detections were recorded in the same area. Scientists worry that the sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because of their slow reproduction rate. Typically, lemon sharks mature late, reproduce infrequently and suffer a 40 to 60 percent infant mortality rate.
Lemon sharks are not the only species affected by the expanded commercial shark-fishing season; spinner and blacktip sharks also gather in the thousands to breed off the coast of Florida during the winter months. Both species are considered near threatened, and both are at risk of over-exploitation should the new fishing season be allowed to continue. And although several shark species, including the lemon shark, the tiger shark and three species of hammerhead are protected in Florida’s state waters, these waters extend only three nautical miles from shore, creating a very limited protection zone that does not include the Jupiter aggregation site.
Many seasonal visitors — including the endangered great hammerhead — are therefore at risk from fishing boats that travel far beyond the state boundaries. The CITES protection afforded to the three hammerhead species is of little consequence in this case, as it pertains only to the transport of listed species across international borders. Even those species not yet classified as at risk stand to suffer declines as a result of the altered fishing season. The depletion or disappearance of any of these apex predators will negatively affect the health of local ecosystems, perhaps even affecting the non-shark species these same fishermen rely on out of season.
This year, the large coastal shark (LCS) quota for fisheries on the Atlantic seaboard will start at 36 sharks per trip for all directed shark-limited access permit holders. Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico are allowed up to 45 sharks per trip, with the Atlantic quota expected to increase to the same number halfway through 2016. According to NOAA, the incentive for the extended fishing season is to give fishermen from all stretches of the coastline a fair chance to catch their share of the quota, but in doing so, it is severely affecting the Florida lemon sharks’ fair chance for survival.
To protest against the extended fishing season, click here.