The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac) took a major step forward at its March meeting by recommending the prohibition of wire leaders on the Hawaii deep-set longline tuna fishery in the western Pacific Ocean. Wire leaders, also known as steel trace, are used by vessels fishing for bigeye tuna, but when sharks are accidentally caught on the line, they are unable to free themselves and frequently die as bycatch. This is a problem for the oceanic whitetip shark, which is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. A switch to nylon, or monofilament, leaders, which are easier for sharks to bite through, would reduce mortality and help give this shark population a chance to recover.
In addition, the council recommended the development of a requirement to remove as much fishing line, or trailing gear, from an accidentally caught shark as possible—that is, to cut the line as close to the shark as possible before release. That would further protect sharks once freed from a longline. Council staff estimated that these two requirements would reduce mortality by 17% to 36%.
It’s now critical that the council finalize these much-needed decisions at its June meeting and that federal fishery managers implement them. The recommendations have wide support—including from the Hawaii Longline Association, which announced that its member fishing vessels would voluntarily ban wire leaders months before the council recommendation.
Although the voluntary industry action and subsequent council recommendation are important milestones, more protections for oceanic whitetip sharks are urgently needed at the international level. According to a study published in February in the journal Nature, more conservation efforts are needed to prevent the species’ precipitous decline from continuing. Even with a no retention policy in place for the species in the western and central Pacific Ocean, the oceanic whitetip shark is assessed at less than 5% of its unfished population size in that region.
With the U.S. fishing industry eliminating the use of wire leaders, the country has an opportunity to encourage other countries to adopt similar standards and be a leader on this issue throughout the Pacific, if it chooses to act. At this year’s meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which is responsible for the management of oceanic whitetip sharks in the western and central Pacific, the United States should propose a requirement for all vessels to switch to less harmful monofilament gear. In fact, in its recommendations last month, Wespac specifically requested that the U.S. Department of State advance such a measure in international forums such as WCPFC and make handling guidelines mandatory to reduce the deaths of oceanic whitetip sharks.
The U.S. should also work with governments to support a recovery plan for this species that includes increased use of electronic monitoring, as well as onboard fisheries observers, to achieve 100% monitoring of fishing activities on longline vessels. Such coverage of all longline fishing activity, which is already required for purse seine vessels, would help WCPFC collect robust and unbiased scientific information and allow it to verify compliance with international obligations, including those covering sharks.
Wespac’s recommendations, should they be implemented in the U.S., would be worth celebrating, but they are not enough to protect a species as threatened as the oceanic whitetip shark. When WCPFC meets this December, the U.S. government should follow the efforts of its regional council and work toward a robust measure that would give these sharks a real chance of recovery.
KerriLynn Miller is an associate manager with Pew’s international fisheries project.