Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page



S. Branstetter
1957 Arvis Circle East, Clearwater
FL 33764, USA


1.1 The resource, the fishery, and management

The shark resource (excluding dogfishes) of the Atlantic coast of the United States is diverse and abundant. Species include those that inhabit only nearshore waters to those that are found only on the continental slope. Some may be restricted primarily to pelagic or to demersal environs and some occupy a variety of marine habitats. Castro (1983) identified 77 shark species known to occur within 500 nautical miles of the US Atlantic coast and approximately four others that might occur there. A few more species have been documented from the area since that time (e.g. Branstetter and McEachran 1986; Bonfil 1995). Robins et al. (1991) identified 48 species known to occur from freshwater to the 200m contour of the US Atlantic coast; this list would exclude many of the deepwater squaloids. The current Fishery Management Plan (FMP) in effect for sharks of the region (NMFS 1993) identified 73 species that may be taken during fishing activities in the area. Anderson (1985), using the average catch for 1965 to 1980 as a first order approximation of maximum sustainable yield (MSY), estimated that annual yield might be as high as 16 600t (round weight) in the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Base on recent catches, NMFS (1993) calculated biomass at MSY at 20 700t, but that the MSY (surplus) was much smaller - 5300t.

The shark fishery landings of the US Atlantic coast is rather small relative to total US fishery landings, and insignificant compared to world catches. Bonfil (1994) notes that, according to FAO, world fishery landings are approximately 97 millions tonnes of which 700 000t are elasmobranchs. Of that 700 000t, the total US elasmobranch (including all sharks, skates, and rays for both coasts) landings are about 36 000t (and about 29 000t of the US catch are dogfish). In other words, total US elasmobranch landings contribute to about 3.6% of world elasmobranch landings. Bonfil further notes that these landings represent about 0.4% of the US total landings. The Department of Commerce (USDOC 1997) lists total (non-dogfish) shark landings in 1995 and 1996 for the US (east and west coast) at just under 7000t with an ex-vessel value of $10–11 million. During the same period, total US landings were 4.5–5.6 million tonnes with a value of nearly $3.8 billion; and for the southeast US, where the vast majority of the shark fishery is prosecuted, total fishery landings in 1995 and 1996 were roughly 800 000t with a value of nearly $900 million. These numbers dwarf the landings and value of the southeastern US shark fishery. The commercial shark fishery of this region peaked at 7000t in 1989, has been restricted to roughly a 3600t quota since 1993, and beginning in 1997 the quota was reduced to 1800t. The ex-vessel value of the commercial fishery is approximately $10 million [there apparently is a distinct difference in the way that this report calculates the value of the southeastern commercial shark fishery {see Section 2.6} compared to the value of the total US shark landings reported by USDOC (1997) - this author believes that fin values are not included in USDOC's calculations], and the recreational fishery has been estimated to generate more than $50 million in revenues. Even so, these values pale in comparison to the larger more valuable southeastern fisheries, such as that for shrimp which lands greater than 115 000t annually with an ex-vessel value of $450-500 million.

Considering the overall insignificance of the shark fishery, it is amazing the controversy, concern, and public attention that it receives. Sharks have often been conceived rather as “charismatic megafauna”, and in the past, the general public's attitude towards sharks was that “a good shark is a dead shark”. Fortunately, over the last 10 years a greater conservation ethic has been embraced, and the importance of sharks as components of the ecosystem have been understood by the public. As with any other finite marine resource, sharks should be utilized wisely. Because of certain general life history characteristics of sharks (slow growth, late maturation, low fecundity), the populations are susceptible to overfishing. To prevent overfishing requires management of the fisheries for this group from the outset of a fishery; it cannot be done successfully once a problem has been identified with the sustainability of a stock. Current management efforts indicate that a 22-species “large-coastal” shark group is overfished, thus catches of these species have been restricted through quotas. Although quotas and allocations usually put the various user groups (recreational and commercial) at odds, in this case, the recreational user group does not appear to be overly concerned about their restricted ability to land sharks. The major source of controversy has been differences in the perspective of the commercial sector compared to that of non-consumptive conservation-interest groups, with the management agency - the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) - trapped in the middle.

This report does not include information on the dogfish catches of the U.S. Atlantic coast, even though this is the dominant “shark” landing for the region. This fishery has varied sporadically over the years, and is currently being promoted in the northeastern U.S. where the groundfish stocks have collapsed. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (1997) total dogfish landings in the U.S. (east and west coasts) equalled nearly 30 000t with a value of $11.8 million. According to Bonfil (1994), the Northeast U.S. landed approximately 15 000t of shark in 1991 and 10 000t of skates and rays. Most of these “shark” landings will be dogfish. This fishery is omitted from this report because they have no management strategy. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has assumed the lead role in a multi-Council initiative to develop such a plan.

This report has compiled and consolidated information from a variety of sources that reported in various formats. Landings and catches have been reported in the literature in both round weight (total animal weight) and dressed weight (gutted, headed carcasses). The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) uses a factor of 1.39 to convert dressed weight to round weight, and inversely 0.72 to convert round weight to dressed weight. Additionally, official U.S. management documents converted values to the metric system, but most stock assessment documents remain in the English (U.S.) system. This report generally discusses landings and values in the metric system with 1 tonne equal to 1000kg unless otherwise noted. Likewise weights are dressed weights.

1.2 Species composition of fishery

The current FMP governs the catch of 39 species of sharks that are found in western North Atlantic waters; the FMP does not address dogfishes (families Squalidae and Triakidae), catsharks (family Scyliorhinidae), or sawsharks (family Pristiophoridae). The managed species are divided into three general categories - large coastal, small coastal and pelagic - based not on specific biological or ecological characteristics, but on where the species would most likely appear in the landings. Certain species in the management unit are included because of their oddity (e.g. sixgill, sevengill, whale and basking sharks); others (Galapagos and bigeye sand tiger) are extremely rare in US waters, but are included because they might be confused with more common species (dusky and sand tiger respectively), and one (narrowtooth) is only included because of an unconfirmed report of its capture in the North-West Atlantic. Otherwise, the focus of the management unit is on sharks in the families Carcharhinidae, Lamnidae, Alopiidae, Odontaspididae, and Sphyrnidae. In 1997, four species were removed from the large coastal group, and rules were implemented which prohibited fishing for, possessing and selling these species. Additionally, fishing for white sharks was restricted to catch-and-release-their possession and sale were prohibited. Species included in the various categories are:

Large coastal species:
SandbarCarcharhinus plumbeus
BlacktipCarcharhinus limbatus
DuskyCarcharhinus obscurus
SpinnerCarcharhinus brevipinna
SilkyCarcharhinus falciformis
BullCarcharhinus leucas
BignoseCarcharhinus altimus
NarrowtoothCarcharhinus brachyurus (no confirmed report in North-West Atlantic)
GalapagosCarcharhinus galapagensis
NightCarcharhinus signatus
Caribbean reefCarcharhinus perezi
TigerGaleocerdo cuvier
LemonNegaprion brevirostris
NurseGinglymostoma cirratum
Scalloped hammerheadSphyrna lewini
Great hammerheadSphyrna mokarran
Smooth hammerheadSphyrna zygaena
Prohibited species:
WhaleRhincodon typus
BaskingCetorhinus maximus
Sand tigerOdontaspis taurus
Bigeye sand tigerOdontaspis norhonai
WhiteCarcharodon carcharias (catch and release only)
Small coastal species:
Atlantic sharpnoseRhizoprionodon terraenovae
Caribbean sharpnoseRhizoprionodon porosus
FinetoothCarcharhinus isodon
BlacknoseCarcharhinus acronotus
SmalltailCarcharhinus porosus
BonnetheadSphyrna tiburo
Atlantic angelSquatina dumerili
Pelagic species: 
Shortfin makoIsurus oxyrinchus
Longfin makoIsurus paucus
PorbeagleLamna nasus
ThresherAlopias vulpinus
Bigeye thresherAlopias superciliosus
BluePrionace glauca
Oceanic whitetipCarcharhinus longimanus
SevengillHeptranchias perlo
SixgillHexanchus griseus
Bigeye sixgillHexanchus vitulus

Although 39 species are identified in the FMP, the commercial fishery specifically targets two species: sandbar and blacktip sharks (Parrack 1992; NMFS 1996a; Branstetter and Burgess 1997). Poffenberger (1996a) noted that sandbar/dusky (combined for this particular discussion due to the difficulty that many fishers have in accurately identifying these two species), blacktip and hammerhead sharks dominated the identified commercial catch during 1994 and 1995, but when summing the landings for these two years, the largest category - 11 million lb total - was unidentified sharks. NMFS assumes all unidentified sharks are in the ‘large coastals’ category.

An observer programme (Branstetter and Burgess 1997) monitoring the commercial shark fishery from North Carolina through the eastern Gulf of Mexico (West Florida continental shelf) has documented the catch of 18 different large coastal, four small coastal, three pelagic and two non-managed species. Out of 11 718 large coastal sharks caught during commercial efforts, the top five species by number were: 6469 (55%) sandbar, 1717 (15%) tiger, 1559 (13%) blacktip, 730 (6%) dusky, and 340 (3%) nurse sharks representing 92% of the total large coastal catch. Of 4782 small coastals, 78% (3716) were Atlantic sharpnose sharks. Using the data available in Branstetter and Burgess (1997), the total contribution of blacktip shark to the fishery's catch would be low; Louisiana lands approximately 20% of the quota and approximately 80% of their landings are blacktip sharks (Russell 1993). Based on the species composition of the various regions, sandbar and blacktip sharks comprise about 55% and 25% of the US large coastal landings by weight respectively; the remaining 20% of the landings come from a variety of species including primarily dusky, bull and lemon sharks. Catches are not well documented by number, but because the sandbar shark is a larger species than the blacktip, the actual number of blacktip sharks taken should be a larger percentage of the catch than is represented by their weight contribution. A first order approximation (Branstetter and Burgess, unpublished) estimated that 4 sandbar sharks are taken for every 3 blacktip sharks. If so, then after adjusting the blacktip shark contribution reported by Branstetter and Burgess (1997) to better represent the catch in non-surveyed areas and account for the differences in size between species, the blacktip shark catch by number would nearly triple; sandbar sharks by number would represent roughly 40% and blacktip sharks would be roughly 30% of the catch in the US commercial fishery. Some of other common species, such as the tiger shark, are usually released. Tiger sharks are less than 5% of the overall landings and comprise 15% of the catch. Similarly, almost all nurse sharks are released alive.

Recreational landings differ by geographic and environmental regions. Catches in the North-East US (Maine to Cape Hatteras) are dominated by mako species, thresher species, blue sharks and a selected group of demersal carcharhinids (primarily sandbar and dusky sharks), whereas catches in the south are dominated by sandbar, blacktip, and Atlantic sharpnose shark. Recreational landings have decreased over time, and the species composition has changed. A recent summary of recreational catches (Scott et al. 1996) provided species-specific landings back to 1981, however in many cases, the species identifications were obviously suspect. For example, the smooth hammerhead (a rarely encountered species) was one of the more commonly identified sharks in the recreational catch, and six-gill and seven-gill sharks were noted as commonly taken in recreational catches aboard for-hire reef fish vessels (these vessels fish much shallower water than normally inhabited by these species).

In any event, using information available in Poffenberger (1996a) and Scott et al. (1996) a general summary of the combined 1994–1995 landings in both the commercial and recreational fisheries could be tabulated. Sandbar and dusky shark landings should be combined because of the relatively poor distinction between the two species in non-observer datasets, especially in the recreational sector. Poffenberger's estimates did not provide species specific landings on a regional basis; regional landings were reported by management group (large coastal, pelagic, small coastal) only. Therefore, regional comparisons between recreational and commercial landings are not possible. Further, commercial landings are reported in lb (dressed weight) and recreational landings in numbers of fish.

Catch records illustrate the geographic distribution of the species. In the recreational fishery, sandbar/dusky sharks are the dominant large coastal species north of Cape Hatteras, but this catch pales in comparison to the heavier catch (and larger fishing effort) in the southeastern regions where the blacktip shark dominates the large coastal catch. The Atlantic sharpnose shark is the dominant recreational catch, both from private and for-hire fishing efforts. In the commercial fishery, the dominance of the sandbar shark is readily apparent; this species' primary range directly overlaps the primary range for the commercial fishery. The large unidentified category can be expected to be comprised of a similar composition and be dominated by sandbar and blacktip sharks.

1.3 Distribution of fishery

The federal fishery management plan encompasses all US EEZ waters in the Atlantic, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. This includes seas from Maine to Texas (from the Canadian to Mexican border) as well as those of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The range of commercial fishing is smaller; only a limited number of species identified in the management plan occur north of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and little effort is expended in the EEZ waters of US protectorates in the Caribbean Sea. The vast majority of the commercial fishery is in the southeastern continental US from North Carolina through Louisiana. The fishery is distributed according to the geographical distribution of the large-coastal component, which is composed primarily of warm-temperate, sub-tropical sharks of the family Carcharhinidae.

In addition, a substantial recreational fishery exists throughout the Atlantic region. The fishery tends to target the more common species of the regions with catch/landings in the North-East US dominated by pelagic sharks such as shortfin makos and threshers, and with the catch/landings in the southeast focused on the large-coastal (Carcharhinus spp.) and small coastal (primarily Atlantic sharpnose sharks) categories. Fishery efforts, both recreational and commercial, also exist in state-controlled waters outside of the jurisdiction of the FMP; approximately 14% of the commercial, and 64% of the recreational, fishery occurs in state waters (NMFS 1993). Relevant information is given in Table 1.

Table 1

Recreational catch (by number) and commercial catch (by weight) of different shark species
SpeciesRecreational (nb.)Commercial (lb)
North-East/Mid-AtlanticSouth-East/AtlanticGulf of MexicoTotalAtlantic US combined
Sandbar/dusky38 08211 4648 03757 5831 621 289
Blacktip3 03229 072101 048133 152903 825
Other spp.26945 14936 62382 041124 278
“Requiem”*3 24115 72237 44956 412-
Hammerheads1 00324 3883 32228 713853 174
Atl. sharpnose-24 3883 32228 713853 174
Other small coastal-17 23160 29077 52140 080
Shortfin mako34 850687735 544613 171
Other pelagics2 558--2 558203 208
Smooth/spiny dogfishes149 39114 0075 947169 340 
Unidentified82 81562 4815 010150 30611 050 819

* Includes sharks identified to family or genus only, such as “carcharhinid family” or “requiem shark”.

1.4 Associated species either as bycatch or discards

Commercial shark fishing is primarily conducted using bottom longlines and the bycatch from this effort is minimal. According to a recent survey of the commercial fishery (Branstetter and Burgess 1997), bycatch of fishes other than sharks was about 5% by number. About a third of the bycatch was skates and rays, most of which were used for bait. The remainder of the bycatch was bony fishes, and about half of it consisted of marketable species such as sciaenids (drums, sea trouts), snappers, groupers and scombroids (tunas, mackerels) that were retained for sale or personal consumption unless they were a regulatory ‘discard’. Much of the ‘discard’ (non-marketable fish or regulatory discard) was released alive.

A commercial gill-net fishery, using both anchored and drift nets, also targets sharks. One survey (Trent et al. 1997) monitoring this fishery along the South-East US Atlantic coast indicated that about 12% and 8% of the catch by number and weight respectively was fish other than sharks. Of this bycatch, about 37% was a regulatory or non-marketable discard; the remainder was landed. No information is available on the catch and bycatch of a gillnet fishery for sharks in Louisiana. Recreational bycatch from hook-and-line efforts would also include many species that would either be retained (if allowed), or released. Little discard mortality would be expected from this fishery.

1.5 Discussion

Over time, the distinction and definition of the term “shark” has varied. Prior to the FMP the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (Magnuson Act) and most stock assessments (e.g. Anderson 1985) simply divided sharks into two general groups: pelagic (or oceanic) sharks and dogfishes. This generic treatment was hardly conducive to developing detailed stock assessments and management strategies that would adequately address the biological needs of dominant species in the fisheries, or the needs of the fisheries themselves.

‘Pigeon-holing’ each species into a distinct category is unwise because of the variable life histories exhibited among the numerous species. Some species may change their primary habitat over the course of their life, or they may move between habitats on a seasonal basis. Although the three categories used in the current management strategy - large coastal, small coastal, and pelagic - are obviously better than, as done initially, lumping these three groups into one - pelagic (or oceanic) vs. dogfish - the combining of species with different life history traits continues to limit the ability of management measures to effectively address overfishing and lack of sustainability of the fishery and the resource. The current FMP notes that, ecologically, sharks could be categorized as “coastal”, “pelagic”, “coastal-pelagic”, and “deep-dwelling”, but this stratification would lead to problems with both fishery management and enforcement. Alternatively, a management plan proposed but not adopted, for sharks and other elasmobranchs developed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (1980) categorized the sharks as “large inshore/shelf”, “small inshore/shelf”, “large offshore”, and “small offshore” where the distinction between large and small was whether species reached sexual maturity at a size larger/smaller than five feet (160cm) total length. Under this alternative categorization, at least one dominant “large coastal” species as defined in the existing management strategy, the blacktip shark, would be considered a “small inshore/shelf species”, and separated from other “large coastals” such as the sandbar and dusky sharks. As noted below, there is merit to such an alternative categorization.

The current commercial fishery targets the large-coastal grouping, with a secondary focus on the small-coastal component (Branstetter and Burgess 1997; Trent et al. 1997); the pelagic component is more likely to occur in landings as a bycatch from fishing efforts targeting other highly migratory species (tuna, billfish) (Hoey and Casey 1986; Power 1993; Russell 1993; Hoey 1996a, 1996b). Even though the large coastal group consists of 22 different species, two species (sandbar and blacktip sharks) dominate the catch and landings, comprising nearly 85% of the total landings of the fishery (NMFS 1996a; Branstetter and Burgess 1997). Each species has a very different life history strategy. The sandbar shark grows very slowly, not maturing until approximately 15 years of age (Casey et al. 1985; Sminkey and Musick 1995a), whereas the blacktip shark grows much more quickly, maturing in only 4–5 years (Branstetter 1987; Killam and Parsons 1989). These two life history strategies are representative of the remainder of the species as well. Given their dominance in the fishery, it might be possible to divide fishery management options between “fast growing” and “slow growing” species. A similar recommendation was made during the 1994 stock assessment to combine the blacktip with some other large coastal species along with the small coastal species in a separate category based on common life history characteristics. The categorizations proposed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would have addressed these biological differences.

Excluding dogfishes, the combination of unidentified or generically identified sharks represent the bulk of the landings, illustrating the poor species specific identification available for both sectors of the fishery. There is limited price differential for most commercial large coastals sharks and thus limited incentive to report accurate species composition of landings. Similarly, in the recreational fishery, there is a poor recognition of shark species by the average recreational angler, and as many anglers simply target ‘sharks’ during a fishing trip, there is again limited incentive to distinguish among species. These limitations will continue to impede the development of detailed management options for the shark resource.


2.1 Historical fishing methods

US-based commercial shark fishing has been sporadic over the last five decades and each time a fishery re-emerged, the gear technologies had changed. Commercial shark fishing in the southeastern United States increased substantially during World War II when a fishery developed on both coasts of Florida that targeted sharks for the production of vitamin A; skins from this fishery were also marketed (Springer and French 1944; Springer 1949, 1951). This fishery died out in the early 1950s with the development of synthetic vitamin A. Steel-hulled vessels 40–50 feet (12–15m) in length fished chain set lines of up to one mile (1.6km) in length with 100 or more large hooks suspended from the mainline by permanently attached chain leaders approximately 6 feet (2m) in length and spaced approximately 25 feet (8m) apart (an appropriate colloquial name for this gear was “widow-maker” gear). Two such rigs were fished each night in waters usually less than 25 fathoms (46m) deep. Springer (1951) noted that 3000 to 12 000 (primarily) large sharks were landed annually; the preferred catch was sandbar and bull sharks. In the mid-1960s a small commercial fishery re-developed along the Florida Atlantic coast (Springer and Gilbert 1963; Beaumariage 1968). This fishery was promoted in an effort to reduce the damage that sharks caused to other commercial fishing operations and to reduce the potential for shark attacks at Florida beach resort areas (Beaumariage 1968; Lawlor 1985). This fishery did not last long, landings peaked at 1.4 million lb (635t) in 1967. Vessels of 35–40 feet (11–12m) set 1/4" (0.6cm) steel cable mainline with 4–6ft (1–2m) long steel gangions using a 14/0 hook. Also in the 1960s, the Norwegians and Danes began fishing for porbeagle in the northwest Atlantic; between 1961 and 1964 their catch rose from 1800 to 9300t, and then declined to less than 200t (NMFS 1993). This fishery has not been revived. At about the same time, the Japanese developed a rope/steel pelagic floating longline for tuna fishing, and many northeastern US swordfishers soon adopted this gear. It consisted of 1/4–3/8" (0.6–0.9cm) mainline with a similar sized rope drop line for the gangions. The gangion terminated with a 6-foot (2m) 3/32" (.24cm) 7×7 steel wire leader and a hook appropriate for the target species. The use of this gear by New England swordfishers who ventured south into the Gulf of Mexico in the winter led to southern fishers coining the term “Yankee” gear to describe this design. In the mid-1980s during the early phases of the promotion of shark fishing which led to the current fishery, a small scale fishery again developed on the Florida Atlantic coast (Lawlor 1985). Vessels ranging from 35 to 50 feet (11–15m) set modified “Yankee” longlines on the bottom. The mainline consisted of 1–6 miles (1.6–9.7km) of 3/16–1/4" (0.5–0.6cm) hard-laid tarred nylon. As many as 500 removable gangions, made from 12 feet (4m) of multistrand steel cable, which terminated with 3/0–3.5/0 (equivalent to a 14/0) shark hooks, were fished each set. During this same period monofilament began replacing the “Yankee” or rope/steel longlines. This innovation began with the gangions, but expanded to include the mainline as well. Even with the greater probability of “bite-offs”, shark catch rates on monofilament gangions or complete monofilament gear are 2–3 times higher than that of Yankee gear (Branstetter 1986; Berkeley and Campos 1988; Branstetter and Musick 1994).

2.2 Current fishing methods

The current US commercial shark fishery primarily uses bottom longlines composed entirely of monofilament. During the early phases of the current commercial fishery, in the 1980s, vessels fished approximately five miles of longline (300–500 hooks). As the stock began to decline, effort increased to maintain production. According to Branstetter and Burgess (1997), vessels now fish 7–15 miles (11–24km) of monofilament (700–1200lb {318–544kg} test) mainline. Approximately 750–1200 6–8 foot (2–3m) gangions composed of 700lb-test (318kg) monofilament are suspended from the mainline and usually equipped with 12/0–14/0 hooks. Some fishers may still use a light (1/16"; 0.16cm) steel wire leader. The gear is fished overnight. Boats involved in the fishery range for the most part in size from 25–60 feet (7.6–27.4m).

A fishery using drift and set gillnets also targets sharks along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. During the open seasons for the large-coastal fishery these fishers land both small-and large-coastal sharks. With the closure of the large-coastal fishery this fishery became restricted to landing its small coastal catch and must discard its large coastal catch. On the Atlantic coast (Trent et al. 1997), the boats are 40–65 feet (12–20m) in length and fish nets are 900–5900 feet (275–1800m) long and 10–13 feet (3–4m) deep for a period of 6–8hr. Stretched net mesh sizes vary, ranging from 7–11 inch (18–28cm). The number of boats has increased from 5 in 1993 to 11 in 1995, but the annual effort per boat decreased from 30 trips to about 13. There is no readily available information on the effort in the Gulf of Mexico.

The two different commercial fisheries operate at different depths and tend to catch different species, or different sizes of sharks. The longliners tend to fish in near to offshore areas, most often targeting larger sharks, whereas the gillnet fishery is more common in inshore or shallow nearshore waters and takes larger quantities of small coastal species or juveniles of large coastals. Because many states have banned gillnetting in state waters (usually out to three nautical miles) the effectiveness of the gillnet fleet has diminished (NMFS 1996b).

The recreational fishery was, at one time, a trophy fishery targeting extremely large sharks and was prosecuted from both for-hire and private boat. This group of anglers has declined substantially over the past 20 years and has been replaced by anglers who target (or incidentally catch) smaller sharks. The current bulk of the small coastal catches probably occur from anglers on headboats (for-hire vessels carrying 9 or more passengers), whereas large shark catches come from private or charter (for-hire vessels carrying 6 passengers or less) boats (Fisher and Ditton 1993).

In part, this shift in recreational fishing has been brought about from the reduced abundance of large sharks in nearshore coastal waters, but may also reflect a changing attitude toward fishing by the general US public. For example, during the trophy fishing period, it was generally considered that “a good shark was a dead shark”, and anglers who landed large sharks often received substantial positive local media attention. By the end of the 1980s, a greater conservation-oriented ethic was being embraced, and such media attention of a large shark landing often received negative comments from the public. More and more, anglers have incorporated this ethic in their fishing methods (or attempted to avoid negative reactions), and have switched to ‘catch and release’ fishing; this may also be influencing the declining large coastal and increasing small coastal landings to some extent.

2.3 Evolution of catch

The increased popularity of recreational shark fishing in the US Atlantic during the 1970s is well documented (Hoff and Musick 1990; NMFS 1993). For example, in Florida alone, the number of shark tournaments increased from less than six to greater than 40 by 1983 and to more than 65 tournaments annually by 1990 (NMFS 1993). These tournaments operated in two different manners: one group awarded prizes based on the largest sharks entered, thus once very large sharks were entered, many smaller sharks that were caught were released; the other group of tournaments based their prizes on the total weight of sharks landed by a fisher during the tournament which produced a much greater catch and mortality on the stocks.

Combining information available in Anderson (1985, 1990) and Hoff and Musick (1990), the rise in recreational fishing is indicated by an increasing catch in large (all but dogfish) sharks from just over 2000t in 1965 to over 10 000t in 1986. For the period 1970–1986, this catch fluctuated around an average of 8200t/yr, and within the EEZ specifically, catches of large sharks rose from about 1500t in 1965 to more than 6000t by 1986. Recreational landings from 1980–1989 were approximately 4000t (NMFS 1993) and discard mortality equalled, or exceeded, this value (Hoff and Musick 1990). A more recent estimate (Scott et al. 1996) of recreational catch from 1981 through 1995 provided substantially lower catches in weight for the overlapping period of these various reports (1981–1986); for example, Anderson (1990) noted 10 000t were caught in 1986 and Hoff and Musick (1990) stated 49 691t were caught and over 12 000t were killed, but Scott et al. (1996) indicated that approximately 6000t were caught - this latter figure may not include discard mortality. However, according to the latter document, catches have declined from approximately 6000t during the 1980s to about 2300t in the 1990s.

Scott et al. (1996) also provided a breakdown, according to the various species categories used in the current management strategy, which indicated that the annual recreational catch of “large coastal” sharks dropped from an average of 3750t in the 1980s to about 1100t/yr in the 1990s, annual pelagic catches dropped from approximately 2000t in the 1980s to about 750t/yr in the 1990s, and small coastals increased from almost 300t/yr during the 1980s to nearly 500t/yr in the 1990s. This may indicate a shift in the types of recreational shark fishers from those who target large (i.e. “pelagic” or “oceanic”) sharks to anglers targeting small coastals or taking them incidentally during fishing for other species. This would accord with the proliferation and increased use of “head” and charter boat operations in the southeast US over the same time period; these boats target reef fish, but also take substantial quantities of sharks, especially “small coastal” sharks.

The directed commercial shark fishery began in the late 1970s developing slowly with the early entrants helping to develop a market and a quality product. The increasing consumer acceptance and increased value of the fishery led to a substantial increase in entry and participation in the fishery. As demand for shark products increased in the early 1980s, commercial landings rose from about 500t in 1980 to a peak of more than 7000t in 1989. Information on the specific groups was not available prior to 1986 for “large coastals” and “pelagic” sharks, and was only partially available for small coastals during 1991 and 1992. Summing the “large coastal” and “pelagic” sharks for 1986 though 1990, as reported in Poffenberger (1996a), does not produce the total landings reported in the FMP (NMFS 1993); in some cases the categorical values exceed the total, most likely due to updated values between the two report periods of 1993 and 1996. Thus, relatedly, calculating small coastal values for 1986 through 1992 by subtraction is most likely not appropriate and in some cases such a calculation would produce a negative value. Based on a combination of information available in NMFS (1993) and Poffenberger (1996a), commercial landings (carcass or dressed weights) were:

YearLarge coastalSmall coastalPelagicTotal
1980   334**
1981   486**
1982   431**
1983   529**
1984   618**
1985   707**
19861150* 122*1181**
19872185* 274*2630**
19883514* 516*3851**
19894600* 919*5199**
19903489* 724*4344**

* From Poffenberger 1996a - Unclassified shark landings were placed in either the large “coastal” or “pelagic” category basedon the gear used: all unidentified sharks caught on pelagic longlines were assumed to be “pelagic” sharks; all unidentifiedsharks taken on any other gear type were assumed to be “large coastal”.
** From Table 3.1 (p. 43 NMFS 1993); values reported therein were calculated round weights based on reported dressedweights. NMFS uses a 1.39 conversion factor to estimate round weight from dressed weight. Weights reported in this tablehave been changed back to dressed weight based on this conversion factor (1/1.39=0.72).

2.4 Fleet characteristics, evolution of the fleet and fishing effort

According to Parrack (1992) and Scott et al. (1996), overall recreational fishing effort has increased constantly over the last 20 years. Most likely, this does not reflect the fishing effort directed at sharks, but is a first order approximation of fishing effort from which to calculate catch-per-unit-effort information. As noted in Section 2.2, recreational anglers' behaviours have most likely changed, thus influencing the catch-effort relation.

The NMFS 1993 FMP indicated that prior to implementation of the plan between 100–150 vessels were actively engaged in the shark fishery. In addition, about 600 vessels were permitted to fish for swordfish which would be expected to contribute to shark landings. With the implementation of the plan, NMFS expected to receive approximately 700 permit applications; however, to date, nearly 2800 permits have been issued. NMFS (1996b) notes that nearly three-fourths of these permitted vessels landed no sharks in 1995! Thus, the permit holders represent latent fishery capacity; the active fleet is still estimated to be approximately 100–150 vessels.

During the early phases of the current commercial fishery in the 1980s vessels fished approximately five miles of longline (300–500 hooks). As the stock began to decline, effort had to increase to maintain production. Currently, vessels use longlines 7–15 miles (11–24km) in length fishing 750–1200 gangions.

From a recreational standpoint, there is little information available on the characteristics of anglers who target or catch sharks. Fisher and Ditton (1993) reported that only approximately 1% of the anglers interviewed in the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey (MRFSS) actively fished for sharks, but that tournament anglers who fished for sharks could serve as a proxy for shark fishers in general. That group tends to fish>50 days/yr, have 9 years of fishing experience and approximately half fish from a boat less than 10 miles from shore. Fisher and Ditton (1993) estimated that 215 000 private boat trips were taken in 1989 specifically targeting sharks. According to them, these specialized anglers began shark fishing after several years of saltwater fishing experience and nearly a third of the anglers indicated that if they could not fish for sharks, there would be no acceptable substitute.

2.5 Markets

2.5.1 Introduction

With the implementation of the Magnuson Act in 1976, the US government put substantial effort in developing domestic fisheries. Sharks were one of the species groups identified as an underutilized resource with the potential for fishery expansion (Ronsivalli 1978; Colvocorresses and Musick 1980; Branstetter 1981; Cook 1982). There had been an established market for shark fins to make shark fin soup. At one time there was also a market for the skin and jaws, but processing these products is labor intensive and competition from overseas markets made this unprofitable in high labor-cost countries such as the US (Beaumariage 1968; Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council 1980). Development of a successful and efficient fishery was limited by poor consumer acceptance of shark meat (Gardina 1975; Gillespie and Brandon 1976). Following a federally assisted marketing programme (Weeks 1974; Slosser 1983; NMFS 1993), shark meat finally gained consumer acceptance. As consumer acceptance in shark meat grew, the price increased from approximately $0.15–$0.25/lb ($0.07–0.11/kg) for carcasses in the late 1970s (Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council 1980) to approximately $0.50–1.00/lb ($0.23–0.45/kg) in the current fishery. Coupled to this increased demand for meat the wholesale value of dried fins increased from about $7.50/lb ($3.40/kg) in the 1960s to $60/lb ($27/kg) in the 1980s and 1990s. Actually, ex-vessel prices are paid in wet fin weights; currently fins are bought for $25/lb ($11.30/kg) wet weight. A large adult shark will yield about 5lb of wet fins, or about 2.25lb (~1kg) of dry fins. This price shift prompted the practice of “finning”; cutting the fins off the shark and discarding the carcass, sometimes while the shark was still alive. There was a public outcry to abolish the wasteful practice of finning, and this, in part, drove the development a management plan.

The current market for shark products is both domestic and international. The vast majority of meat is used domestically, but almost all fins are eventually exported to the Orient. A market has also developed domestically and internationally for the vertebrae and other cartilaginous byproducts produced during processing; these byproducts are used in the production of a health remedy that purportedly alleviates arthritic conditions in joints, and inhibits tumorous growths. The NMFS (1996b) has proposed and implemented new regulations to cap landings and limit participants for all species categories because of concern about the potential for increased mortality on the stock because of these new, lucrative markets.

2.5.2 Revenues from the fishery

Average nominal and constant US commercial shark dollar values were calculated during the development of the 1993 FMP, and have not been updated; the same values are provided in NMFS (1996b) (1982 = 1.00):

YearNominal ($/kg)Constant ($/kg)

YearNominal ($/kg)Constant ($/kg)

2.6 Economics of the fishery

The commercial fishery is potentially profitable, but currently limited in scope due to the short timeframes that the “large-coastal” fishery is open during each year. Nearly 2800 fishers are permitted to commercially fish for and land sharks although only about 25% of these permitted fishers are active in the fishery. NMFS (1996b) recognized that the fishery is substantially overcapitalized, thus the rents have been dissipated in the fishery, reducing the overall value of the fishery. Most participants are also involved in other fisheries during the times that the “large-coastal” shark fishery is closed, or may fish for shark as part of a multi-species and multi-gear effort. For example, along the west Florida coast, many active shark-fishing vessels also participate in the grouper fishery at the same time. Sharks may be taken as a bycatch during grouper fishing and contribute to the vessel's landings, or the vessel may also target shark during part of trip and then target grouper.

With the continuing reductions in total allowable catch (TAC) for this fishery, there has been some attrition in the number of vessels actively engaged in the fishery. However, the vast majority of permitted vessels do not actively fish for shark; they simply hold a permit which allows them to land shark should they so desire.

Based on the current “large coastal” sharks annual quota of 1285t dressed weight, an average price of $0.50/lb ($0.23/kg), a requirement that wet fin weight landings not exceed 5% of the carcass landings per trip, and an average price of wet fins of $25/lb ($11.40/kg), the commercial large coastal fishery generates about $4.9 million in ex-vessel revenues annually ($1.4 million in meat and $3.5 million in fins). Based on the current pelagic shark quota of 580t (dressed weight), an average price of $1.00/lb ($0.45/kg) for meat, and similar values for fins as for the “large coastals”, the “pelagic landings” could be worth $2.9 million ($1.3 million for meat and $1.6 million for fins). With the implementation of a “small coastal” shark quota in 1997 of 1760t dressed weight, and assuming a price of $0.50/lb ($0.23/kg) for the meat and no value for the small fins, this fishery could provide approximately $200 000 in ex-vessel revenues. Thus, the fishery currently has an ex-vessel potential value of approximately $8.0 million. Prior to the 1997 “large coastal” quota cuts, the “large coastal” potential (based on a 2570t dressed weight quota) would have been $9.9 million, for a total fishery value of $13.0 million.

The actual ex-vessel value of the fishery in 1995 can be similarly calculated using the reported total landings for each category (total landings do not always equal the quota due to overages, or landings that are not under the jurisdiction of the FMP). In 1995, “large coastal” landings were reported as 6 870 848lb (3 116 564kg) dressed weight, pelagic landings were 834 723lb (378 624kg) dressed weight, and small coastal landings were 40 010lb (18 148kg) dressed weight. Using the unit values in the last paragraph, this would equate to $3.4 million in “large coastal” meat, $8.6 million in “large coastal” fins, $0.8 million in “pelagic” meat, $1.0 million in “pelagic” fins, $20 005 in “small coastal” meat, and $0 in “small coastal” fins for a total ex-vessel revenue of $13.8 million; slightly higher than that calculated from the allowable quotas. By contrast, the US Department of Commerce (USDOC 1997) listed the value of the total US non-dogfish shark landings at only $10.5 million in 1995; apparently there is some difference in how this ex-vessel value is calculated by USDOC.

Information concerning fixed and variable costs associated with shark fishing is unavailable, but one captain/owner calculated a “break-even” point at approximately 3000lb of catch per trip. Given a 4000lb trip limit the income from a trip would be approximately $2000 in meat (at $0.50/lb; $0.23/kg) and $5000 in fins for a total of $7000 per trip; thus the costs for a trip would be approximately $5250.

The prices offered for shark meat through the marketing infrastructure are poorly documented, but according to one processor, in general, a fish dealer buys from the vessels at $0.50–$0.60/lb, processes the carcass to a 63% yield “loin” (skin, red meat, and vertebrae removed), and markets that product at about $0.80–$0.90/lb ($0.36–0.41/kg). Fillets from these loins sell for approximately $1.65/lb ($0.75/kg) to retail markets which cut the fillets into steaks and sell them for approximately $3.50/lb ($1.59/kg). No information was available on yield loss for these last two steps. These values fluctuate seasonally depending on the supply and demand for product.

The ceratotrichia from the fins become “noodles” used for shark fin soup and the price rises quickly from an ex-vessel value of $25/lb ($11.36/kg) wet weight for the raw fin. Wholesalers who buy wet fins then dry the fins get about a 45% yield, and sell the dried fin for approximately $60/lb ($27.27/kg). Translated back to a wet weight price, this equates to about $27/lb ($12.27/kg) for about an 8–10% profit. With additional upgrading and quality control the profit margin might be as high as 15%. As processing continues, yield continues to decrease, but fins are then sold to exporters who also realize about a 10% profit, and the Hong Kong buyers also realize about 10% profit. According to one fin buyer, combed fins (dried with skin removed, but ceratotrichia still in place) sell in the Oriental market for about $138/lb ($62.73/kg).

Economic information on the recreational shark fishing effort is limited. Based on the 1977 recreational fishing efforts, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (1980) estimated that charter fishing for sharks in the Gulf of Mexico generated expenditures of roughly $800 000 in charter fees, and approximately $840 000 in non-fee expenditures in Gulf coast communities. As for non-charter shark fishing during the same timeframe, the Council estimated that roughly $1.0 million was spent in coastal communities by shark fishers; this figure did not include economic-base multipliers which potentially could double these values. Total economic impact due to shark fishing in the Gulf of Mexico in 1977 was approximately $3.5 million which generated approximately $1.0 million in personal income and 113 jobs in coastal communities. Fisher and Ditton (1993) estimated that the average shark angler spent $197 per fishing trip and based on an estimate of 215 000 shark fishing trips by recreational fishers in the Gulf of Mexico in 1989, a total of $42 million was spent shark fishing in the region with a consumer surplus of nearly $24 million for a total value of $66 million. Based on MRFSS estimates of the numbers of sharks caught and landed in the Gulf of Mexico for 1989, Fisher and Ditton suggested that the value was approximately $158–$183/shark ($101–$117 equivalent value and $57–$66 consumer surplus).

Taxes generated from this fishery would include state and federal personal income and property taxes to the vessel owner and crew and any state and federal sales taxes associated with the marketing of the fishery products.

2.7 The fisheries work force

Prior to the implementation of management measures that restricted the fishery to a seasonal activity, a sizable part of the fishery operated year-round with professional fishers; other professional fishers were involved in multi-species efforts during the year, with part of their directed effort, or bycatch, being shark related. During periods when the “large coastal” fishery is closed, the fishing fleet and fishers must participate in other fisheries to generate income.


3.1 The fisheries within the context of national fisheries policies

Since 1976, fisheries conducted in the US EEZ have been governed by the laws and regulations outlined in the Magnuson Act. That Act has been amended over time, and is now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1996 (Magnuson-Stevens Act). The general purpose of this Act is to conserve and manage the fishery resources found off the coasts of the United States and all regulations promulgated to meet this goal shall be consistent with ten National Standards. In summary, those standards outline that management measures shall:

  1. Prevent overfishing while achieving optimum yield from each fishery

  2. Be based on best scientific information available

  3. Manage a stock as a unit throughout its range

  4. Not discriminate between States, and any allocations or assignments will be fair and equitable among user groups

  5. Consider efficiency in the utilisation of fishery resources

  6. Allow for variations among fisheries, fishery resources, and catches

  7. Minimize costs and avoid duplication

  8. Consider the importance of fishery resources on the fishing community to provide for the sustained participation of such communities while minimizing adverse economic impact on such communities

  9. Minimize bycatch or mortality on unavoidable bycatch, and

  10. Promote the safety of human life at sea.

3.2 Objectives for the management of the shark fisheries

Given the specific mandates outlined in the 1976 Magnuson Act, the Councils were required to develop management plans for each fishery stock. After initial consideration of the available (albeit limited) data, the Councils recognized that the shark stock(s) was (were) overfished. The Councils realized that the production of a consensus multi-Council plan would delay implementation of management which they deemed was immediately necessary and in 1989 they requested that the Secretary of Commerce take action to (i) cap the growth of the commercial fishery, (ii) establish a recreational bag limit, (iii) eliminate finning, and (iv) initiate a shark fishery data collection programme. The 1990 amendments to the Magnuson Act gave the Secretary of Commerce the authority to manage all highly migratory species in the US EEZ. Subsequently, a Secretarial Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean (NMFS 1993) adopted the following management objectives:

  1. Prevent overfishing of shark resources

  2. Encourage management of shark stocks throughout their ranges

  3. Establish a shark resource data collection programme, and

  4. Increase the benefits from shark resources to the US while reducing waste, consistent with the other objectives.

3.3 The objective setting process

As with most US fisheries, the shark fishery operates under open access and the resource is considered common property of the US citizenry, thus stakeholders include the general populace of the United States. Within that group of stakeholders are the user and interest groups. User groups are divided generally between the commercial and recreational sectors, and interest groups are considered the general public or specific identified organizations with an interest in the conservation, management and use of the resource.

The Regional Fishery Management Councils determined, based on the best available scientific information, that the shark stock of the US Atlantic was overfished. Thus, based on the requirements of the Magnuson Act, it was necessary that management actions be taken to rectify this situation. In the case of the shark fishery, management differs from that of most other US fisheries. Sharks are recognized as highly migratory species and their management is relegated to the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Commerce (with the NMFS Assistant Administrator of Fisheries as the designee) instead of the regional Fishery Management Councils.

In 1989, a management plan was drafted by the National Marine Fisheries Service and presented to the public for comment. Interested parties had the opportunity to comment on the relevance of the proposed management measures at both public hearings and through written comments to the Secretary of Commerce. Substantial comments and additional data were submitted that required additional consideration in the management plan document and stock assessments. In all, three drafts of the FMP were developed. Each draft was available for public comment. After incorporating or addressing these comments, NMFS published the final FMP in 1993 (see Section 5.1 for details on how management measures are implemented, and how stakeholders' interests and concerns are considered by management). Although the Secretary is bound to follow the same guidelines as Councils in developing and considering input on regulations and management strategies, there is much less opportunity for dialog and open debate over the issues. (See also Section 5.4 for detailed discussion of this situation).

3.4 Discussion

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, and preceding versions of that Act dating back to 1976, specifically outline a policy and goal for fishery management of resources under federal jurisdiction of the United States. Management plans produced in response to this Act are usually driven by the need to meet National Standard No.1 - to prevent or reverse overfishing in an existing fishery. However, management plans must address each of the national standards (see Section 3.1), which includes provisions ensuring equity of resource access among user/interest groups, and efficiency of the fishery as well as efficiency of management (e.g. management costs). There has been little controversy concerning the specific objectives of management; controversy has primarily focused on the actual measures that were implemented to meet these objectives, and the ramifications of those measures to the fishing community.


4.1 Identification and evaluation of policies

Generally, initial management measures focus on preventing or reversing overfishing of a given stock. In most instances, the strategy is to rebuild the stock by setting TACs at a level that will eventually produce MSY; thus the policy is stock-based with open access to the fishery.

During the development stage for any management plan, several management options are identified for consideration, ranging from the status quo (no initial management or subsequent change to current management) to full closure of fishing activities that affect the species in question. These options outline a variety of methods to reduce effective fishing mortality, such as using quotas, area or season closures, minimum sizes, or some combination of these. Additionally, the federal government must comply with Executive Order 12866, “Regulatory Planning and Review” which sets guidelines for promulgating new regulations and reviewing existing regulations. This order focuses on the benefits and costs of the regulatory actions and sets the regulatory philosophy and principles that guide agency regulatory development. The agency must choose among regulatory approaches selecting those that maximize net benefits to society. When the agency has determined the best method to achieve the regulatory objective, it must design regulations in the most cost-effective manner. In most cases, a preferred option is identified by the management agency whether that be a Council or the Secretary of Commerce (or the Secretary's designee) as in the case of the Secretarial Plan implemented for sharks. Many viable options may be available, but if such measures are unenforceable, or require excessive commitments of time and money on the part of the managers or user groups, then other options that achieve the same goal with less requirements will generally be favoured. Thus, the option that best meets the ten national standards identified in Section 3.1 will be the preferred option.

A major limitation to addressing fishery management at the national level, and in the specific case of sharks, is the fact that fisheries do not tend to be managed prior to the stock becoming overfished, or at least identified as having an immediate potential to become overfished without management intervention. Thus, the system is reactionary not proactive; the management objectives become harder to achieve because they are often inter-dependent. For example, in the case of the shark fishery, objectives No. 1 and No. 3 are closely interrelated (i) stop overfishing and (ii) develop a data collection method. But, without sufficient data it is difficult to determine if overfishing is occurring, let alone define methods to correct the situation. By the time sufficient long term data are collected the fishery may have collapsed from ineffective attempts to stop overfishing.

NMFS (1993) developed management measures which include commercial harvest quotas, recreational bag limits, prohibition of finning, dealer and fisher permitting and reporting requirements, and the release of non-landed sharks in a live and healthy condition. These were designed to allow for the recovery of the “large coastal” species group (the only group identified as overfished) by stabilizing instantaneous fishing mortality (F) at a level that would produce MSY, i.e. FMSY.

4.2 Resource access

The resource is considered common property and thus available to all US citizens. Access is restricted only through means that identify specific user groups and keep other user groups from circumventing the regulations in order to gain an unfair advantage in access to the resource. In addition, there has been a greater emphasis over the last decade in recognizing the needs and rights of non-consumptive groups. NMFS (1997) notes that there is an inherent value in having sharks in the environment that could be high considering the fascination in sharks exhibited by the general public. NMFS recognized that this existence value for non-consumptive groups must be incorporated into the management decision-making process as it reduces the level of consumptive use.

The commercial fishery is open access, with usage controlled by TACs or quotas. The commercial “large coastal” quota is equally divided into two fishing seasons: one starting 1 January and continuing until half the existing quota is landed, and the other beginning 1 July and continuing until the remainder of the quota is taken. Any overages from the first season are subtracted from the second season; no adjustments are made between years. The commercial pelagic landings are also controlled by a quota, and as of 1997 a small coastal quota has been established.

To fish commercially for sharks in the US EEZ requires a federal permit. As noted, NMFS (1993) expected that approximately 700 persons would apply for commercial shark permits; in fact, almost 2800 permits have been issued, but only about one-quarter of the permitted vessels landed even one shark in 1995. Thus, many fishers acquired a permit in case they wanted to sell sharks or shark products during a given year. Other permit holders may be speculating on the potential value of the permit should limited entry be implemented. The permit costs $40, but for fishers that apply for several permits (to participate in other fisheries such as reef fish, swordfish, etc.), the first permit is $40, and each additional permit is $10. These must be renewed annually. To obtain a permit for shark, fishers must show that 50% of their income was derived by selling fish, or that $20 000 was generated through the sale of fish in one of the last three years prior to the application year (NMFS 1993). NMFS defines a recreational fisher as one who does not sell his catch, and this latter requirement precludes the possibility that a recreational angler could circumvent the recreational bag limit and “pay for his/her trip” by selling a large catch of sharks.

There are no specific commercial shark fishing permits for the individual states, but each state has some kind of licensing mechanism for commercial fishers. Although the licensing requirements vary by state for most fishers there is an annual license fee of about $100 that must be paid for a commercial licence that is issued to either the fisher or the vessel. Some states also require a “products” licence, or endorsement, in order for the fishers to sell their catch; this cost ranges from $50–100. Some states also have a minimum income requirement for obtaining a commercial licence. As with federal permit regulations, these state requirements are intended in part to deter recreational fishers from purchasing a commercial licence just so they can land more fish than would be allowed under a bag limit associated with a recreational licence. At the time of this writing, Amendment 1 to the existing FMP is still in development; this amendment will institute a two-tiered limited entry system (see Section 4.7 for further comment on this proposed activity).

No other limits, other than quotas, exist for the commercial fishery. The fishery has experienced a derby-effect as participants have attempted to land as much as they could in as short a time as they could. This has often caused a glut of product on the market to the detriment of ex-vessel price received by the fisher. To reduce this derby effect, a 4000lb trip limit was imposed to slow the supply of product to the market at any one time and thus stabilize prices.

The recreational catch is restricted by a bag or creel limits intended to keep mortality below a designated value in relation to the TAC while allowing fishing to continue over the entire year. Most states require that anglers purchase a licence to be able to fish, but there are no restrictions other than day or trip bag/creel limits on the amount of effort that an angler can put forth; an angler may fish from one day to every day of the year. Although recreational landings are monitored on a sub-annual basis, there is little precedent for closing a recreational fishery prior to year's end (see also Section 4.7). There are mechanisms to restrict or prohibit recreational sale, but some recreational anglers do sell their catch; such sales, if documented, would be counted against any commercial quota.

4.3 Gear restrictions

There are no federal gear restrictions, but several states restrict or prohibit the use of certain gears that can be used to catch sharks. Several states prohibit the use of gill nets in state-controlled waters (usually out to 3 miles from shore), and a few states prohibit longlining in state waters.

4.4 Vessel regulations

There are no vessel regulations.

4.5 Biological regulations

There are no current federal regulations based upon biological parameters, however NMFS is considering several options such as season/area closures to protect nursery grounds and pupping periods, and minimum size limits for the more common species based on recommendations made by Branstetter and Burgess (1997). Based on the 1996 stock assessment, NMFS determined that a 50% reduction in F was necessary and cut the quotas by 50% as a proxy (see 3.2.5, 4.3.3, and 4.3.4 for further details). Based on the species composition and the size ranges taken in the current commercial fishery, Branstetter and Burgess (1997) suggested that similar reductions in fishing mortality could be accomplished through size limits with a smaller impact on the TAC. Only one state, Virginia, has size limit regulations, which were based on recommendations by Branstetter and Burgess (1997); other states are considering some form of size-limit management. The Virginia regulations prohibit landing any shark (i.e. all species) which is below that minimum size. North Carolina and Mississippi are also considering implementing specific size limits for several species.

4.6 Catch/quota allocation

The fishery is currently controlled by calculating a stock TAC that will result in a fishing mortality level that leads to a stock size capable of producing MSY on a continuing basis (FMSY). The “large coastal” quota was allocated based on the commercial and recreational landings between 1986 and 1991; 84% commercial and 16% recreational. The “pelagic” group was not identified as overfished, so a “pelagic” quota was allocated according to average landings of each user group for the period 1986–1991. Similarly, “small coastal” sharks were not identified as overfished, and no quota was set for this group, although a first-order-approximation of MSY was calculated for monitoring purposes. These quotas have been adjusted according to updated stock assessments and determinations of the effective fishing mortality compared to the FMSY.

Based on the 1996 stock assessment, the TAC on “large coastal” was reduced by 50%, and a small coastal commercial quota was implemented. NMFS was concerned that increased effort might be directed at “small coastals” because of a shorter “large coastal” season predicated by the reduced quota. Currently, the “large coastal” TAC is set at 1284t for the commercial sector (divided into two fishing seasons annually) and 250t for the recreational sector. The “pelagic” TAC is 580t for the commercial sector and 980t for the recreational sector. The “small coastal” commercial TAC is 1760t, and the recreational TAC is 830t. Commercial TACs are monitored directly by landings and the recreational TACs are approximated by setting bag/creel limits. Anglers are restricted to landing two sharks from any category (large coastal, pelagic, small coastal) per boat per day with the exception that there is a two shark per person per trip bag limit for Atlantic sharpnose sharks.

4.7 Discussion of current policies

There is an inherent weakness in a management strategy dependent on a TAC to achieve a stock abundance that will produce MSY. First, without long term fishery data, the estimated MSY is a first order approximation; in the case of the shark fishery, it is defined as the largest average annual catch or yield that can be taken over a significant period of time. The only reference point to this average yield are the landings that have occurred in the recent past, and these maximum short term landings most likely exceed a sustainable average yield on a long term basis. Second, it is difficult to consistently curtail landings to that TAC in an open access, wide-ranging fishery composed of a variety of user-group types who have different reporting requirements concerning catch and effort.

Total commercial landings of “large coastal” versus the TAC for the first two years after the management plan was implemented were (Poffenberger 1996a):

YearTACTotal landingsOverage

This overage may not be as substantial as would appear. Much of the landings are reported as “unidentified shark” (Section 1.2), and NMFS assumes these are all “large coastals” (Poffenberger 1996b); substantial quantities of “small coastals” may be included in this generic category as well. In addition, not all commercial landings occur from permitted fishers selling to permitted dealers. A permitted fisher is not allowed to sell his catch if the season is closed; however non-permitted fishers are not restricted. Sharks also occur as a bycatch in other fisheries both during, and after, the open seasons and can be taken by fishing in state-controlled waters (approximately 14% of the total catch is estimated to come from state waters) outside federal jurisdiction (NMFS 1993). Nevertheless, landings exceeded the stock TAC. Some mechanism should be introduced to account more accurately for landings by species (or species groups) and the unregulated catches.

Monitoring and controlling recreational landings is even more difficult. TACs for the recreational fishery are translated into bag limits that should, based on past estimates of catch and effort, allow recreational fishing to continue throughout the year without exceeding the TAC. The initial bag limits were set at 4 “large coastal”/“pelagic” sharks/boat/trip (day) plus 5 “small coastal” sharks/person/trip (day). Estimated landings versus the TAC (in tonnes) for the first two years after the FMP was implemented as given by Scott et al. (1996) are listed in Table 2.

Table 2
Post-FMP landings data
YearLarge coastal landings (TAC)Pelagic landings (TAC)Small coastal landingsUnknown spp. landingsOther spp. (non-mgmt)
1994849 (490)+ 73%302 (980)- 69%462121214
19951064(490)+ 117%1384(980)+ 41%55244177

Combining years, “large coastal” landings equalled 1913t of a 980t two-year TAC and “pelagic” landings equalled 1686t of a 1960t 2-year TAC. There was no TAC for “small coastals” until 1997. Thus, the recreational fishery is, in general, doubling its “large coastal” TAC, and not meeting its pelagic TAC.

Management measures must be implemented equitably among user groups and because the commercial quota was halved beginning in 1997 (Sections 4.6, 5.3.3, 5.3.4), NMFS also attempted to halve the recreational large coastal TAC by altering the bag limits. Whereas the bag limit had been 4 large “coastal”/“pelagic” sharks/boat/trip, and 5 small coastal sharks per person per day, it was restricted to 2 sharks of any category/boat/day, plus 2 Atlantic sharpnose sharks/person/day. Halving the recreational large coastal TAC yields 245t, which according to NMFS (1997), was rounded to 250t. However, NMFS apparently did not consider that the existing bag limit was ineffective at restricting landings to the prescribed TAC. Halving the 1994–95 average landings of 957t produces 479t, not 250t.

In part, the oversight of the excessive landings that results may stem from a miscalculation. NMFS (1997) states: “Since implementation of the FMP, approximately 70–86% of the large coastal recreational quota of 1230t has been taken annually…”. NMFS apparently divided the actual large coastal landings for 1994 and 1995 by the 1997 aggregate large coastal/pelagic TAC of 1230t (250t plus 980t): 849/1230=70%, 1064/1230=86%. In reality, in contrast to the NMFS (1997) statement, large coastal landings were approximately double the appropriate allowable large coastal TAC of the time and would be quadruple the allowable large coastal recreational quota in 1997. Thus, the apparent overages attributable to the large coastal category will not be sufficiently reduced by only halving the bag limit.

One caveat to these values is that, according to NMFS (1993), approximately 64% of the recreational effort occurs in state waters beyond the jurisdiction of the federal management strategy. Thus, as with the commercial landings, much of the overage may be attributed to catches in this non-controllable area. However, if the TAC is set at a level to produce a continuing MSY, then some method must be designed to incorporate these landings into the TAC, such as subtracting them from the allowable federal TAC. Otherwise, the recreational bag limit, as defined, will not keep landings under the TAC, and as such, recreational bag limits most likely should be reduced further. This will become more important as shark stocks rebound, becoming more abundant and attract more recreational anglers back to the fishery. Note that, prior to the implementation of the management plan, many recreational angling groups advocated a one-shark/boat bag limit.

Even though landings have exceeded the TAC in both sectors, NMFS (1994, 1996a, 1997) claim that the initial management measures implemented in 1993 curbed the excessive harvest, and stock declines evident since the 1970s have halted. As such, given that the initial management measures had only been in place for four years and that the stock has a very slow response time, the previous NMFS actions may not have had time to work. The fishery is relatively new and there are few historical fishery-independent measures of the stock; thus recruitment must be measured in terms of catch in the fishery. Recruitment will occur from continued successful reproduction, but based on the biology of the primary species (sandbar shark) in this fishery, whose slow growth delays reproductive maturity to approximately age 15, recruitment to the fishery from that reproduction will not occur for at least a further 6–8 years. Any cohorts and age classes stemming from increased reproduction and survival could not yet have entered the fishery. There is preliminary evidence that substantial recruitment is occurring (Branstetter and Burgess 1997), and if so, that recruitment is stemming from the initial management actions. Thus, there is cause to question the most recent management restrictions to the fishery.

Nevertheless, because there was no conclusive evidence of recruitment or recovery occurring, NMFS determined that, to meet a risk adverse management policy, additional restrictions in the form of quota reductions were needed to increase the probability of initiating recovery over the next two years (by 1999). There are two problems with this logic. First, a direct translation between quota reduction and F reduction does not always happen. Sharks tend to segregate by size and in some areas it is possible to fish on very abundant smaller juvenile sharks in nearshore waters. Obviously, it takes more small individuals to fill a 4000lb trip limit than it does if large fish are caught. Thus, even with a reduced quota, it is possible for mortality to remain constant (see Section 5.3.4). NMFS (1997) recognized that this scenario might occur, but rationalized that any such increases in mortality were outweighed by the benefits of reducing the probability of further stock decline. This is not a particularly logical argument. Reducing the probability of a stock decline hinges on reducing effective fishing mortality; if mortality is not decreased, then the probability of stock declines is not reduced. Second, even NMFS (1997) acknowledged that it was highly unlikely that positive responses by the stock would be detectable in only 1–2 years and that measuring any change, even with precise indices (which are not available), might not be possible for a decade or more.

In the rule proposed in December 1996 (Federal Register 61 (241):67296), NMFS stated that it had initiated a study to examine the potentials for alternative management measures, such as size limits and area closures, to achieve the same mortality reductions without such intrusive effects on the fishery. NMFS noted that it intended to amend the FMP within one year to incorporate an updated rebuilding schedule. To date, no amendment has been put forward.

Quota cuts are not the only method to achieve reduction in F. As noted above, Branstetter and Burgess (1997) suggested that the imposition of an appropriate size limit should reduce mortality at a similar rate and introduce more efficiency into the fishery (see Section 5.3.4 for further discussion of this option). Coupled to the benefits of additional alternative management policies, such as nearshore nursery ground closures, these alternative measures could effectively reduce mortality to a level that will support stock rebuilding while not affecting the fisheries to such a great extent. If such actions can be implemented, they would better meet the appropriate national standards for fishery management, including those that mandate using the best available information, consider efficiency in using the resource, minimize costs to the fishery and management, and consider the importance of the resource to the fishing community.

It is obvious that there is a need for a long-term rebuilding schedule. Almost all management actions to date have had rather short-term target dates with limited goals and in most cases the goals have been extremely optimistic considering the rather non-plastic nature of shark population dynamics. Instead of the management strategy focusing on what is needed to produce a healthy and sustainable stock and fishery in the future, management actions have been incremental designed to provide “quick-fixes” to current issues. That is, the actions focused on alleviating the immediate symptoms, not curing the problem. While it has been recognized that it is necessary, as management has been implemented, no long term strategy has yet materialized. There is little doubt that the delays in effectively managing the fishery resulted in a less than optimal stock condition which, in turn, led to undue economic hardship on the commercial and recreational fishing sector. This may be the most telling factor in the current state of the stock and its potential to produce a sustainable fishery in the near future. With the revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act came a provision that all management plans shall have a rebuilding schedule included in the strategy, and if one is not available, it will be completed with one year of the passage of that Act.

On a more positive note, NMFS has begun to address the issue of excess harvesting capacity in the commercial sector. To date, management measures have been primarily directed at controlling the size of the stock rather than correcting the common property externality. This has led to increasingly complex and invasive management regulations designed to correct symptoms instead of the cause. Currently, an excessive latent harvest capacity exists given that nearly 2800 permits have been issued although only 100–150 boats actively participate in the fishery, and these boats can successfully fill the established quotas well within the period of the designated seasons. The greater the discrepancy between harvesting capacity and resource productivity, the more likely the fishery will become unprofitable or economically marginal. NMFS assumes that when sufficient restrictions exist on attaining a licence, rent generated by the fishery resource will be reflected in the value of the licence. Thus, the long term objective of NMFS (1996b) is to develop a management system in which fleet capacity is more closely aligned with resource productivity so as to achieve the dual goals of economic efficiency and biological conservation. To address this objective, NMFS has proposed a two-tiered (direct and incidental) licence limitation system for the commercial fishery (NMFS 1996b). The licence holders will include those who have contributed to the fishery in the near past, helping to ensure that those permit holders who have operated under the restricted TACs and suffered short-term losses to contribute to stock rebuilding will be those who realize the subsequent benefits of stock recovery. At the same time, this should eliminate the “speculator” who is currently holding, but not using, an existing permit. NMFS considers limited access an important first step in the economic rationalization of fleet size.

Conversely, to date, there has not been any indication of developing a strategy to curtail the excessive latent and real harvesting capacity in the recreational sector. The resource is still common property to this user group, which has grossly exceeded their allowable “large coastal” TAC since management has been implemented. Millions of anglers are licensed to fish in the US Atlantic and recreational fishing effort, especially in the Southeastern US, has increased steadily over time (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 1996). That increase will most likely continue as the preferred recreational target species' stocks recover. The original bag limit of four “large coastals” per boat per day resulted in a doubling of the allocated TAC; the new bag limit of two sharks of any category (excluding Atlantic sharpnose sharks) should reduce the take, but in all likelihood will not sufficiently reduce the take of “large coastals”. Fisher and Ditton (1993) noted that the average shark angler keeps one shark per trip; with an assumption of two people per boat, this would equal the current bag limit. However Fisher and Ditton's data included counts of all sharks, including small coastals. If anglers do not keep more than one “large coastal” shark per day, then the current allowances are far in excess of the actual demand.

Even so, it would be nearly impossible to monitor the recreational fishery in an accurate and timely manner. Whereas headboats and charterboats must report their catches to NMFS, no method exists to adequately sample the large privately owned recreational fleet. The current phone/mail surveys of this sector reach about 1% of the estimated recreational anglers from all categories, and according to the samples, shark fishes are about 1% of the total intercepts (Fisher and Ditton 1993); thus shark results are rare in the surveys. Without substantial increases in the monitoring effort to reach a larger segment of the recreational sector little can be done to monitor and control the catches. Although it would obviously be daunting from an enforcement standpoint, it would behoove NMFS and other agencies to examine the possibility of further limiting recreational effort through smaller bag limits and introducing some kind of special endorsement requirements for anglers to possess sharks. A similar recreational endorsement policy already exists in fisheries for selected species. Further, recreational groups have endorsed a lower bag than currently imposed by NMFS, and according to Fisher and Ditton (1993), the average recreational shark angler is an experienced and dedicated fisher who often may not fish if shark were unavailable. Thus, these anglers would recognize the value of short-term restrictions to enable a sustainable resource.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page