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Faces of FADs: Oceanic Whitetip Shark

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
December 19, 2013

Faces of FADs: Oceanic Whitetip Shark

Our Faces of FADs series introduces you to the marine species most often injured or killed by fish aggregating devices (FADs) commonly used in unregulated commercial fishing.

The series continues with the oceanic whitetip shark, thanks to a suggestion from our friends at Oceana.

As one of the ocean’s least discriminating consumers, the oceanic whitetip is one of the most common victims of FAD fishing. Despite their listing as a vulnerable species, the lack of independent observers on most fishing vessels and the value of their fins for use in shark fin soup means these sharks are often painfully mutilated while they are still alive and then tossed overboard to drown as bycatch.

Victim IV: Oceanic Whitetip Shark

Type: Fish

Diet: Carnivore (Bony fishes including tuna, barracuda, white marlin and swordfish; threadfins, stingrays, sea turtles, sea birds, gastropods, squid, crustaceans, mammalian carrion, garbage, almost anything really)

Average life span in the wild: 12 years (males) to 16 years (females)

Size: up to 12 feet (3m)

Weight: 350 lbs (159kg)

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Interesting Fact: As oceanic sharks, whitetips are usually found far offshore or around oceanic islands at depths of less than 200m (656 ft). They are rarely seen inshore.

Profile: Once one of the three most abundant species of large marine animals, intensive fishing including heavy use of FADs has driven the whitetip population to the brink. Recent estimates show that over the past four generations, the population has declined by 99% in the Gulf of Mexico and 70% in the Northwest Atlantic. Similar analyses show a 90% decline in whitetip species biomass.

mapWhitetip fins have been estimated to be worth $45-$85 USD per kilogram, giving fishing vessels strong incentive to kill and poach fins from these animals instead of returning them to the ocean safely when caught.

The 2000-2001 IATTC Shark Characteristics Sampling Program showed this species accounts for more than 20% of measured bycatch. These numbers do not include the many oceanic whitetips that get coded in bycatch estimates as “other sharks.”

Threat from FADs:

Oceanic whitetip sharks are among the species most commonly caught in FADs. Because of their tendency to prefer shallow water depths and the far-reaching geographic spread of the population, whitetip sharks make up a substantial percentage of global bycatch. Studies have also shown that whitetip sharks are 80-97% more abundant in no-entry zones compared with fished zones.

Juvenile whitetips are especially vulnerable to FAD fishing due to their associative behavior and small size matching the mesh size of the netting regularly used in FAD construction.

Not only are whitetip sharks threatened by FAD fishing by themselves, they are also often accompanied by remoras, dolphinfish, pilotfish and various species of sea turtles. Because FAD fishing kills indiscriminately, marine wildlife swimming with whitetip sharks often share the unlucky whitetip’s fate.

As mentioned in a previous installment of this series, a study of shark bycatch numbers from tuna fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific indicated that in 2010, 8.39 metric tons of whale sharks were caught as bycatch in the European Union alone. A 2011 report released by The Pew Environment Group found shark mortalities from bycatch fishing in the hundreds of thousands in a single year; the report also noted that this figure could be significantly higher given that bycatch reporting was voluntary. Coupled with other threats from the shark fin, mega-aquarium and liver oil industries, the whitetip shark’s vulnerability continues to grow exponentially.