For Immediate Release, August 1, 2019

Contact:

Catherine Kilduff, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 780-8862, ckilduff@biologicaldiversity.org
Jane Davenport, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3274, jdavenport@defenders.org
Elizabeth Trotter, Earthjustice, (305) 332-5395, etrotter@earthjustice.org

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration’s Failure to Protect Atlantic Sharks, Giant Manta Rays From Lethal Fishing Gear

WASHINGTON— On behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice sued the Trump administration today for failing to protect oceanic whitetip sharks and giant manta rays from being captured and killed in U.S. fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

The lawsuit, filed in D.C. federal court during Shark Week, notes that both species have suffered dramatic declines because of overfishing — either through intentional targeting or from being killed by fishing gear aimed at other animals.

The oceanic whitetip shark has suffered population declines of up to 88 percent in the Atlantic. Populations of the giant manta ray, which has a wingspan of up to 29 feet, have plummeted by up to 95 percent.

The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the oceanic whitetip shark and giant manta ray as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in early 2018, triggering the agency’s obligation to protect these species from undue harm when authorizing U.S. fishery operations.

The lawsuit charges the Fisheries Service with failing to satisfy that obligation as it continues to authorize fisheries managed under the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. The Plan requires that U.S. fisheries operating in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico comply with national laws as well as international laws and standards. The agency has not completed the required Endangered Species Act consultation process for many fisheries managed under this plan.

These fisheries employ different types of gear, including longlines in the water column (targeting tuna, swordfish and other species), longlines along the bottom (targeting sharks) and drift gillnets. Longlines can be up to 45 miles long, with hundreds of baited hooks. Gillnets have been called “walls of death” for the harm they do to a variety of marine species. U.S. fisheries using these gears harm oceanic whitetip sharks and giant manta rays and have contributed to the species’ declines.

“These indiscriminate fishing practices are outdated,” said Jane Davenport, an attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We can’t keep fishing this way while sharks, manta rays and other accidental victims head toward extinction. As the agency charged with conserving these imperiled species and managing U.S. fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service is under a double obligation to comply with the Endangered Species Act’s mandate to ensure the survival and recovery of the oceanic whitetip shark and giant manta ray.”

“These sharks and rays won federal protection, but they’re still being slaughtered by reckless fishing practices,” said Catherine Kilduff, a Center attorney. “The Trump administration has to follow through by regulating the deadly Atlantic longline and gillnet fisheries. Giant manta rays and oceanic whitetip sharks will keep declining if our government doesn’t do its moral and legal duty to protect them.”

Giant manta rays and oceanic whitetip sharks are intentionally hunted in other countries —the sharks for their large fins and the manta rays for their gills, both prized in Asian markets. They are also caught unintentionally as non-target bycatch. In the United States, oceanic whitetip sharks are targeted directly infisheries, and both the shark and the ray suffer from bycatch as well. Reducing the primary threats to these species, intentional and incidental catch in commercial fishing, is key to their survival and recovery.

“The Fisheries Service has long recognized that the oceanic whitetip shark and giant manta ray need protection,” said Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton. “It can’t sit idly by while allowing deadly fishing practices to indiscriminately sweep these incredible species into their nets and longlines.”

A peer-reviewed study by Center scientists, released in January, found most marine species listed under the Endangered Species Act are recovering. Listed species with critical habitat protections and those listed for more than 20 years are most likely to be rebounding. In February 2019 Defenders and the Center also sent a detailed technical letter to the agency urging it to designate critical habitat for the giant manta ray in U.S. waters.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.

Earthjustice, the nation’s premier nonprofit environmental law organization, wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. Because the earth needs a good lawyer.