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The Gulf of Mexico’s smalltail shark and hammerhead numbers are on a sharp decline

overhead photo of a hammerhead shark in the water
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Special to WGCU
This great hammerhead shark was photographed about 5 nautical miles off Flagler Beach on March 15, 2019.

Their populations have dropped by 80%, and both could soon be recommended for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A small shark that hangs together by gender in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s West Coast, and at first glance doesn’t appear to do anything noteworthy, is one of the latest creatures to be recommended for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition on Halloween Day urging the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the smalltail shark, whose population has declined by more than 80% globally over the past 27 years. The great hammerhead shark, which can grow to 20 feet long and whose global population has also decreased by 80%, was petitioned for ESA protection by the diversity center in June.

The smalltail is found from the Gulf of Mexico south to Brazil, where it has been eliminated from waters off the coast of at least 11 Brazilian states. Heavy fishing pressure has decimated the smalltail’s population in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The rapid and catastrophic decline of the smalltail shark is alarming, and the species needs immediate help,” said Kristin Carden, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “More than 100 million sharks, including smalltail sharks, are killed every year for their fins, meat and other body parts. Without Endangered Species Act protections, the smalltail shark will soon become another victim of the global extinction crisis.”

The smalltail shark is categorized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, a designation for species teetering on the brink of extinction. The species is highly threatened by overfishing for its meat and fins, as well as myriad impacts of rapidly changing weather, sea-level rise, and ocean pollution.

Until now, Carden indicated that nobody’s been looking out for the little shark.

Smalltail sharks are diminutive animals, growing only up to four feet long. The species lives in shallow, nearshore areas, which makes it vulnerable to fishing. A slow-growing, late-maturing species, the smalltail shark is slow to recover from over-harvesting.

But the shark is necessary to do its part in the food chain by eating smaller fish and feeding larger ones.

Known for their hammer-looking heads, the aptly-named great hammerhead is found in Tampa Bay and along Florida’s West Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, and in other warm and tropical waters around the world.

Both petitions asks the fisheries service to designate the habitat critical to the survival and recovery of the sharks.

A species must be listed under the Endangered Species Act if it being impacted by:

  • Current or threatened destruction or other negative impacts, on its habitat or range
  • Over-fishing, in the case of a marine animal, whether or commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes
  • Disease or predation
  • Failure of existing protections
  • Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence

The Endangered Species Act attempts to protect listed plants and animals from extinction by making it a crime to sell it, have it, transport it or kill it. The ESA also protects the habitat in which endangered creatures live.

Congress made the ESA federal law in 1973. A species must first be listed as endangered or threatened in a process that is administered by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1982, lawmakers added a provision that said it must not take longer than two years for a creature nearing extinction to receive the ESA’s protections. The process starts with a petition filed on behalf of the planr or animal, and ends when it is entered into the Federal Register.

Emily Puckett holds a doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Missouri. Several years ago she researched the time it really takes for a threatened animal to be federally protected.

“What we found is that, in practice it takes, on average, 12.1 years,” Puckett told Futurity, a newsletter out of the University of Rochester, NY, that features the latest discoveries by scientists at top research universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, and Australia. “Some species moved through the process in six months but some species, including many flowering plants, took 38 years to be listed — almost the entire history of the ESA.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tom Bayles