Research technician Erin Voigt, measures a juvenile shark, as part of the University of North Carolina Coastal Shark Survey Cruise, Morehead City, NC. Photo credit: Mike Waine.
Sharks belong to the class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) that also includes rays, skates, and deepwater chimaeras (ratfishes). Relative to other marine fish, sharks have a very low reproductive potential. The low reproductive rate is due to sharks slow growth, late sexual maturity, one to two-year reproductive cycles, a small number of young per brood, and specific requirements for nursery areas. These biological factors leave many species of sharks vulnerable to overfishing.
Sharks have internal fertilization and the embryo of most species spend their entire developmental period protected within their mother's body, although some species lay eggs. Females produce a small number (2 - 25) of large pups, which have an increased chance of survival due to their size. Adults usually congregate in specific areas to mate and females travel to specific nursery areas to pup. These nursery areas are discrete geographic areas, usually in waters shallower than those inhabited by the adults. Frequently, the nursery areas are in highly productive coastal or estuarine waters where abundant small fish and crustaceans provide food for the growing pups. These shallow areas have fewer large predators than deeper waters, thus enhancing the chances of survival of the young sharks.
Sharks are a vital part of ocean ecosystems all over the world. Scientists consider them to be a keystone species because they generally reside at the top of the food chain having a strong impact on other species either directly or indirectly. Removing or reducing shark populations in an area can cause an imbalance in the food chain and produce far reaching negative impacts. Because of this, the health of shark populations in an ecosystem is often an accurate indicator of the overall health of the system.
In the mid-1980s, sharks were considered an underutilized resource and fishermen were encouraged to fish for them. Over the next few years, fishing effort increased considerably and the impact of unregulated harvest was beginning to take its toll on some shark species. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stepped in to manage these species followed by the Commission with complementary measures.
The commercial shark fishery is generally concentrated in the Southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantic fishery targets both large coastal shark (LCS) and small coastal shark (SCS) species with bottom longline as the primary commercial gear, followed by gillnets. An Atlantic bottom longline is 3.4 miles in length on average and contains about 300 hooks. Skates, other sharks, or various finfish are used as bait. The gear typically consists of a heavy monofilament mainline with lighter weight monofilament gangions, or branch lines, coming off the main line. The Southeast shark gillnet fishery is comprised of several vessels based primarily out of ports in northern Florida. Vessels typically use nets ranging from 456 to 2,280 meters long and 6.1 to 15.2 meters deep, with about 5.2 inches of stretched mesh. Commercial LCS landings in 2017 were approximately 381,067 pounds dressed weight (dw), an 18% decrease from 2016, while landings of SCS species in 2017 were approximately 294,841 pounds dw, a 40% increase from Atlantic pelagic shark species were 251,375 pounds dw in 2017, a slight increase from 2016, which is largely attributed to the increase in landings of shortfin mako and other pelagic sharks. Smoothhound commercial landings in 2017 were 831,761 pounds dw, a 19% increase in landings in the second year under management.
The recreational fishery for Atlantic sharks occurs in federal and state waters from New England to the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Once called “the poor man’s marlin,” recreational shark fishing is now a popular sport at all social and economic levels, largely due to accessibility to the resource. Sharks can be caught by rod and reel virtually anywhere in saltwater, with even large specimens available to surf anglers or small boaters in the nearshore area. Most recreational fishing takes place from small to medium-size vessels. SCS species such as Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead, and finetooth comprise the majority of the recreational harvest. Short-fin mako and common thresher sharks are generally accessible only to those aboard ocean-going vessels. Across all species management groups, 184,865 sharks were harvested during the 2017 recreational fishing season in the Atlantic region, a 52% decrease compared to the 2016 season. The recreational shark fishery predominately targets sharks from the smoothhound, pelagic, and SCS complexes. In 2017, approximately 58,255 sharks from the SCS complex were recreationally harvested, a 69% decrease from 2016. Sharpnose sharks represented 67% of the 2017 SCS harvest. The LCS complex, including hammerheads, had 7,291 sharks harvested in 2017, while the pelagic shark complex had 58,259 sharks harvested in 2017, an increase of 57% from 2016. Approximately 58,446 smoothhound sharks were recreationally harvested in the Atlantic region, a decrease of 60% from 2016.
Stock status is assessed by species complex or by species group for species without enough data for an individual assessment. In summary, 14 species have been assessed domestically, three species have been assessed internationally and 28 species have not yet been assessed. Most of the species that have been assessed and all of those that have not been assessed require a benchmark stock assessment due to new data, changing information on stocks, and improved assessment methodologies. The accompanying table outlines the stock status of each species or species group. In 2017, a benchmark stock assessment for shortfin mako was completed; results indicate the stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring.
In the mid-1980s, sharks were considered an underutilized resource and fishermen were encouraged to fish for them. Over the next few years, fishing effort increased considerably and the impact of unregulated harvest was beginning to take its toll on some shark species. In the early 1990s, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) implemented a Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean to rebuild depleted stocks and protect healthy stocks from overfishing. In 2008, the Commission adopted an Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Coastal Sharks (and subsequently Addenda I-IV) to complement federal management actions and increase protection of pregnant females and juveniles in inshore nursery areas. The FMP regulates 40 different species of coastal sharks found on the Atlantic coast.
Addendum I, approved in 2009, modified recreational possession limits for smoothhound dogfish and other species, allowed at-sea processing of smooth dogfish from March - June, and removed the two-hour net check requirements, which was determined to be ineffective at reducing bycatch. Addendum II and Addendum III (2013) addressed changes in the federal management of coastal sharks. Addendum II allocated state-shares of the smoothhound dogfish coastwide quota, and modified the maximum fin-to-carcass ratio, consistent with the Shark Conservation Act of 2010. Addendum III created two new species groups (Hammerhead and Blacknose) and increased the recreational size limit for hammerheads. Addendum IV allows smooth dogfish carcasses to be landed with corresponding fins removed from the carcass as long as the total retained catch, by weight, is composed of at least 25 percent smooth dogfish, consistent with federal management measures. Addendum V, approved in August 2018, provides the Board the ability to respond to changes in the stock status of coastal shark populations and adjust regulations through Board action rather than an addendum, ensuring greater consistency between state and federal shark regulations.
In April 2019, the Board approved changes to the recreational size limit for Atlantic shortfin mako sharks in state waters, specifically, a 71-inch straight line fork length (FL) for males and an 83-inch straight line FL for females. These measures are consistent with those required for federal highly migratory species (HMS) permit holders under HMS Amendment 11, which was implemented in response to the 2017 Atlantic shortfin mako stock assessment that found the resource is overfished and experiencing overfishing.
Effective October 9, 2019, the retention limit for those species within the aggregated large coastal sharks (LCS) species group (silky, tiger, blacktip, spinner, bull, lemon, nurse) and the hammerhead species group (scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead) is 55 LCS other than sandbar sharks per vessel per trip. The revised retention limit will remain in effect for the rest of the 2019 fishing season or until NMFS announces another adjustment to the retention limit.
For more information on current federal HMS shark regulations can be found at: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/atlantic-highly-migratoryspecies/atlantic-highly-migratory-species-fishery-compliance-guides