A great hammerhead shark swims by a Project AWARE “Extinction is NOT an Option” sign, Bimini, Bahamas. Photo credit: Neil Hammerschlag
The Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest conservation laws on the planet, and to date, no shark has ever been given ESA protections. In recent weeks, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service has responded to a series of NGO petitions requesting ESA protections for two species of hammerhead sharks. NMFS proposes to list 2 “distinct” population segments” (DPS) of scalloped hammerhead sharks as endangered and 2 as threatened, with 2 DPS’s listed as “not warranted”. The response to the great hammerhead petition is not as developed (the petition itself is more recent), but notes that “the petitioned action may be warranted”.
I strongly believe that both of these species of hammerhead sharks need and qualify for Endangered Species Act protections. If you agree, I encourage you to submit an official public comment in support of listing both under the ESA following the instructions below. Failure to follow all instructions to the letter will result in your comment not being considered. Commenting on this blog post does not count as submitting a public comment, and neither does commenting on a Facebook post about this blog post. Online petitions will not be considered. This process is open to the public, but requires that we follow basic instructions.
To submit a public comment in support of great hammerhead ESA listings, click on the “comment now” button on this page and fill in the required information. To submit a public comment in support of scalloped hammerhead ESA listings, click on the “comment now” button on this page and fill in all the required information. You can also submit written comments via the mail to “Office of Protected Resources,NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 or by fax to 301-713-4060 attn: Maggie Miller. Please note that if you submit a comment by mail or fax, you need to include code NOAA-NMFS-2013-0046 for great hammerheads and code NOAA-NMFS-2011-0261 for scalloped hammerheads.
To help craft your public comment, I’ve written a list of 10 reasons why these sharks qualify for Endangered Species Act protections. Please do not just quote this post word-for-word, if you do then your comment will be considered a “form letter” and not an individual comment.
As 16th Conference of the Parties of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES COP16, pronounced sight-eze) comes to a close, I’d like to reflect on something that made this meeting unlike almost any other wildlife conservation and management meeting in history. Yes, history was made as delegates voted to list commercially exploited shark species for the first time, and history was made when manta rays became the first shark or ray species to be listed under CITES the first time they were proposed, and that’s all fantastic news. However, what I believe made CITES COP16 a game-changer for wildlife conservation and management was the large-scale inclusion of online outreach by both attendees and organizers. For the first time ever, interested members of the public from all over the world could follow along (and to some degree, participate) in real time.
When Dr. Gavin Naylor and his team started a genetic survey of existing shark and ray species, they didn’t expect the results of their project to make international news. Their recent paper (which, at over 250 pages and complete with more than 100 figures, is nothing short of epic), however, is too striking to ignore. The results indicate that there may be as many as 79 previously unrecognized cryptic species of sharks and rays.
A cryptic species is defined as a group that looks almost exactly like another, and may even live in the same region, but is genetically distinct. We’ve known that cryptic species of sharks and rays exist for some time, such as manta rays and scalloped hammerhead sharks, but 79 is a lot; as of the paper’s publication, only 1,221 species of sharks and rays were recognized.
According to Dr. Naylor,
“Organisms become genetically differentiated over time through the cumulative effects of mutation and recombination mediated via drift and selection. When they differentiate in isolation they eventually become so different from the parental stock from which they were derived that they can no longer produce fertile offspring when crossed with them. Some biologists use the point of reproductive inviability as the point at which new species should be recognized….. For practical purposes we recognize “new species” as being genetically or morphologically distinctive from previously recognized forms.”
The study’s methods, though enormous in scope, were relatively basic. According to Dr. Naylor, the study utilized a technique very familiar to geneticists: “standard DNA extraction, PCR, Sanger sequencing, alignment and analysis of a protein coding mitochondrial gene”. To achieve the goals of understanding both evolutionary relationships of sharks and rays and parasite host specificity ( where certain parasites associated only with one species), Dr. Naylor and his team obtained and analyzed samples from as many species as they could. The numbers are impressive- 56 of 57 known families of elasmobranchs were represented among the 4,283 samples from 305 species of sharks and 269 species of batoids. In other words, this study included approximately half of all known elasmobranch species, including many that had never been analyzed genetically before. Since 1986, when the project began, samples have been obtained in more than 50 countries, mostly through the team’s own field work!