WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a legal victory that will help protect Atlantic sharks, a federal court in Tampa late yesterday upheld fishing quotas on sharks established by the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service in April 1997, the Justice Department announced. U.S. District Court Judge Steven D. Merryday ruled that shark fishing quota regulations were based on the best scientific data available and appeared reasonable given the Congressional mandate to rebuild overfished stocks. In upholding the quotas, Judge Merryday ordered that they remain in place pending further analysis of economic impacts on fisherman, to be completed on or before May 1, 1998. The judge, noting the delicate status of Atlantic sharks, stated that "the public interest requires maintenance" of the 1997 shark quotas. In his order, Judge Merryday ruled that the quotas were consistent with several recently-enacted provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a federal law which requires the Commerce Secretary to manage and conserve coastal fisheries. "An agency charged with conserving and rebuilding morbidly fished stocks must wait neither for perfect science nor unanimous consent," said Judge Merryday. "Based on information available to him, the Secretary [of Commerce] proceeded cautiously in setting interim quotas." "I am pleased that the Fisheries Service will be able to continue to responsibly manage and maintain the vital marine life in our coastal waters," said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This decision will help ensure that the Fisheries Service will be able to save these overfished shark species from the jaws of possible extinction." "We are pleased that the court upheld the scientific basis for our actions and that the quotas will remain in place," said Terry Garcia, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and Deputy Administrator of NOAA. The fishing quotas challenged in this case went into effect on April 7, 1997, and reduced the allowed annual catch of large coastal sharks by 50 percent from 2,570 to 1,285 metric tons. In addition, the Fisheries Service maintained the quota for sharks that dwell far from shore, established a quota for small coastal sharks, and implemented other measures to conserve Atlantic shark stocks.

Catch rates, an important indicator of population health, declined by 50 to 75 percent for many large coastal shark species from the 1970's to the mid 1980's. Although federal management of the shark fisheries began in 1993, there is no evidence that shark populations have increased in recent years. The Fisheries Service determined that the quota cut was urgently needed, because the already overfished shark populations would not recover if the existing rates of fishing were maintained. "We will continue to work with fisherman and other interested groups as we develop a rebuilding program that we can all live with, including the sharks," said Dr. Rebecca Lent, Chief of the Fisheries Service's highly migratory species management division. The quota cut is intended to serve as an interim measure to prevent shark stocks from declining further while the Fisheries Service develops other, longer-term approaches to the problem of shark overfishing. By September 1998, the Service must develop a management plan to end overfishing and to rebuild stocks of large coastal sharks in as short a period of time as possible. Sharks are among the top, or apex, predators in the marine food chain, and play an important role in maintaining balance in the ocean's ecosystem. Unlike other fish species, most sharks do not reach sexual maturity until 7-12 years of age and then only give birth to a small litter of young. These attributes make sharks more vulnerable to overfishing than most fish. Once overfished, sharks cannot rebuild their populations quickly. 22 species of large coastal sharks are subject to the Fisheries Service quota, including hammerhead, sandbar and blacktip sharks. Sharks are commercially valuable for their meat, fins, cartilage, liver oil, skin, and internal organs. The case name is Southern Offshore Fishing Assoc. v. Daley (Case No. 97-1134-CIV-T-23C). ###