A new lawsuit aims to get federal regulators to finally gauge just how severely oceanic whitetip sharks are impacted by the longline fishing fleets that operate in waters off Hawaii and American Samoa.

That analysis of how many sharks are inadvertently caught by those commercial boats – and whether the number pushes them closer to extinction – should have been done when the oceanic whitetip was first added to the endangered species list as “threatened” in 2018, the suit contends.

Such a study could compel those U.S. longline fleets to take further steps in addition to the changes they’ve already made to their fishing gear in order to reduce the number of sharks that die after getting hooked on their fishing lines.

However, the National Marine Fisheries Service has been “dragging its feet” for the past four years and hasn’t completed the impact analysis as required under the Endangered Species Act, according to the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Nakachi Shark Kahu Mano
Oceanic whitetip sharks are protected as an endangered species. Courtesy: Kaikea Nakachi

“We have no idea what are the impacts of these fisheries on these sharks,” Grace Bauer, an Earthjustice attorney, said Tuesday. “That’s a big, gaping question mark.”

Earthjustice filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii and Kona-based Hawaiian cultural practitioner Mike Nakachi. CCH and Nakachi first warned the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2019 of their intent to sue over the agency’s lack of a so-called “consultation” on the oceanic whitetip shark.

It’s not clear why NMFS has yet to complete its analysis. A spokeswoman said Tuesday that the federal agency can’t comment on matters of ongoing litigation.

“It’s a question we’re all kind of baffled on,” said Moana Bjur, the executive director for CCH. “You’ve got a species that’s heading toward extinction … I would think that as a national organization they would want to have stronger data.”

What is clear is that the oceanic whitetip, once an abundant shark species, has seen its numbers fall precipitously in recent decades, largely due to their being overfished across the Pacific as bycatch.

The species is believed to have declined by as much as 95% since the mid-1990s, according to an Earthjustice news release.

Data from the international Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission further indicates that an average of 53,500 oceanic whitetip sharks were caught annually by Western and Central Pacific fishing fleets each year from 2013 to 2017. That included more than 1,700 catches a year by Hawaii’s deep-set longline vessels.

More recently, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council reported that some 2,125 oceanic whitetips were caught by the Hawaii deep-set vessels in 2019, according to the new lawsuit. That council, also known as Wespac, manages the U.S. commercial fisheries in the region.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark Mike Nakachi Hookupu
Hawaiian cultural practitioner Mike Nakachi is a plaintiff in a new lawsuit that urges federal regulators to better assess the impacts of longline fishing on oceanic whitetip sharks. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

“Significant numbers” of the sharks caught each year die from the trauma, the suit added.

The lawsuit aims to get more reliable data on the impacts to the sharks in Hawaii and American Samoa from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observers to better hold the fishing industry accountable, Bjur said Tuesday.

In 2020, the Hawaii Longline Association announced it would voluntarily replace all the steel wire leaders at the ends of its fishing lines with less-lethal nylon ones to better protect the sharks. A NOAA ban on the wire leaders will take effect at the end of this month.

Conservationists and fishermen view the change as a positive step, although Bauer called it “a shot in the dark” when federal regulators still don’t know the full impacts of longline fleets on the sharks.

“That’s an obligation that the Endangered Species Act requires them to do,” Bauer said. “The agency was supposed to do all of this before authorizing the fisheries (for use).”

Wespac representatives did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. However, in 2019 the group’s longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, expressed angst over the looming threat of the lawsuit and said it could potentially shut down the fisheries until the issue was resolved, according to the newsletter Environment Hawaii.

Simonds further blasted the National Marine Fisheries Service for moving too slowly in fulfilling its duties, leading to a tense exchange with the NMFS regional administrator during a Wespac meeting, Environment Hawaii reported.

Now, the potential lawsuit that Simonds expressed deep concerns about three years ago is a reality.

“We decided to continue with our fight for the reporting measures,” Bjur said. “Let’s get numbers.”

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