Photo: Whitetip Shark
Oceanic whitetip sharks were historically one of the most abundant sharks in the world’s oceans, but due to both U.S. and international fishing pressure, the population has declined significantly. - Photo: James Dawson/Adobe Stock

Groups agree to suspend a lawsuit against the federal government.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi (CCH) and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Michael Nakachi, the federal government has taken initial steps to protect a dwindling shark species that has roamed the oceans for millions of years. The parties reached an agreement to halt further legal action providing the government follows through on promised actions to formally recognize the species as “overfished.”

The lawsuit was filed in April to compel the National Marine Fisheries Service to take action to protect oceanic whitetip sharks. Although the Fisheries Service had informally recognized the imperiled status of the population for years and listed the species as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, it had not declared the population to be “overfished,” a designation that triggers protective action.

A month after the lawsuit was filed, the Fisheries Service responded by sending a letter to the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (WESPAC), informing them that the sharks are overfished and directing WESPAC to develop a plan to protect the population internationally. WESPAC has a year to make recommendations on how best to reduce shark mortalities in international fisheries.

“The manō has great cultural significance and is part of my own family as an ʻaumakua,” said Nakachi. “These shark deaths are preventable. The government’s action thus far is a welcome first step to ensure the survival of this sacred animal that has roamed in our waters for millions of years.”

“We wish the officials who oversee marine species had taken this step years ago to prevent needless shark deaths,” said Moana Bjur, CCH Executive Director. “We will be be watching to make sure WESPAC follows through on its promises and the regulators come up with a plan to restore oceanic whitetip sharks to a healthy population.”

“We’re glad that our legal action is forcing the Fisheries Service to declare the population overfished and that WESPAC must now take long-overdue action to protect the species,” said Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy. “The whitetip shark population is on a steep decline, headed to extinction if managers do not constrain the bycatch killing of these amazing animals. That’s unacceptable.”

Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2018, thousands of whitetip sharks die as “bycatch” every year because they are caught in nets, lines, or other gear meant to catch different species – such as tuna and swordfish – in the waters off Hawaiʻi and American Samoa. Between 2013 and 2017, domestic and international longliners and purse seiners operating in the Pacific Ocean captured nearly 300,000 oceanic whitetip sharks as bycatch. As a result, scientists estimate that in the Pacific Ocean whitetip sharks have declined 80-95% since the mid-1990s.