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Advocates Challenge Feds' Failure to Protect Imperiled Marine Species

Species Need the Protections of the Endangered Species Act

Additional contact: Mike Harris, Friends of Animals: (720) 949-7791

Washington, DC –Today WildEarth Guardians and Friends of Animals sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failure to grant Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections to several imperiled marine species.  The agency missed statutory deadlines for decisions on petitions to list five species of sturgeon, the Nassau grouper, queen conch, whale shark, and the Gulf of Mexico Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the sperm whale.

“Imperiled species can’t afford delays – the law imposes deadlines on Agency decisions for a reason,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “These species are not protected until they are added to the list of threatened and endangered species, and their populations continue to dwindle as they wait.”

More than half of marine species may be at risk of extinction by 2100 without significant conservation efforts. Despite this grave situation, the U.S. has largely failed to protect marine species under the ESA.  Of the over 2,000 species protected under the Act, less than 5 percent are marine species.  Among the most serious threats to marine species worldwide is the voracious human appetite for seafood.  Many groups of marine species, including sharks, groupers, and whales, are heavily impacted by anthropogenic threats including destructive fishing methods like trawling and long-lining, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification.  Bycatch - when species other than the target species are caught and killed during fishing operations - is also a serious threat.

“The Secretary’s failure to fulfill her duties under the ESA subjects these marine species to further human exploitation and very possible extinction,” said Mike Harris, Wildlife Law Program Director for Friends of Animals. 

The lawsuit seeks to compel NMFS to make determinations for each of the imperiled species as required by the Endangered Species Act.  Listing species under the Endangered Species Act is an effective safety net for imperiled species: more than 99 percent of plants and animals listed under the Act persist today.  The law is especially important as a bulwark against the current extinction crisis.   Plants and animals are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities.  Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct if not for ESA listing.  Listing species with a global distribution can both protect the species domestically, and help focus U.S. resources toward enforcement of international regulation and recovery of the species.


Nassau groupers are medium-sized sea bass, growing to a maximum size of about 39 inches and 55 pounds. They are found in the Western North Atlantic from Bermuda, Florida, Bahamas, Yucatan Peninsula, and throughout the Caribbean to southern Brazil, including coral reef habitats in the Gulf of Mexico. Nassau groupers can live up to 29 years and mature at between 4-7 years of age. Though normally solitary, Nassau groupers form large spawning aggregations (from a few dozen to historically over 100,000 individuals) on or near full moons from November through February when water temperatures are 25-26 degrees Celsius. These aggregations are vulnerable to fishing as they are predictable in location and timing. Often, the discovery of a spawning aggregation is followed by heavy human exploitation, and the local population can be extirpated in as little as a few years.

Queen conch are large mollusks with distinctive spiral shells with blunt spikes and pearly pink or orange interiors. The species can grow to 12 inches in shell-length and weigh up to 5 pounds. The species occurs throughout the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, from Bermuda and Florida in the northern extent of its range to Brazil in the south. Conch are prized for their meat and their large, flared shells, and are commercially harvested in 25 countries. Queen conch have been so heavily exploited in many areas that a viable fishery no longer exists, yet the population continues to be steadily depleted. The United States is the largest importer of queen conch, importing approximately 78 percent of the queen conch meat in international trade (about 2,000 - 2,500 tons annually). Listing the queen conch under the ESA would provide essential protection for this species by restricting U.S. take and import. 

Whale sharks are one of only three species of filter-feeding shark.  Divers prize encounters with these gentle giants. Whale sharks are sparsely distributed in tropical and warm temperate seas, except the Mediterranean. The species is highly migratory and tends to congregate in different areas at different times of the year, possibly following the growth of plankton and other small organisms that are their primary food-source. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the whale shark as “vulnerable” on its Red List, but the designation offers no regulatory protection. Whale sharks have very high commercial value in international trade; they are known as “tofu sharks” because of the consistency of their flesh. Their large fins are also valuable in the shark fin trade. They are also threatened by purse seine fishing, which involves setting a net around a large fish or mammal in order to catch the smaller fish that gather underneath. Purse seining is used extensively to capture tuna that school under whale sharks and led to the reported deaths of at least 50 whale sharks in 2010 and 19 in 2011. Whale sharks are losing coral reef habitat to coral bleaching and other impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, and losing coastal habitat because of ‘dead zones’ caused by run-off from urban and agricultural pollution.

Although the worldwide population of sperm whales is listed as endangered, the resident population in the Gulf of Mexico faces unique threats including continued oil and gas development, high levels of shipping traffic and noise, and ongoing impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Protecting sperm whales in the Gulf as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) would ensure that this genetically, morphologically, and behaviorally distinct population remains a part of the Gulf ecosystem. Sperm whales in the Gulf are unique from other populations in several ways. They are a resident population that generally does not migrate beyond the Gulf. They use a different repertoire of vocalizations than other sperm whales. These vocalizations, called “codas,” have distinct patterns and are likely culturally learned, much like human language. Sperm whales in the Gulf have a dialect that is rarely encountered outside the Gulf. They are smaller than other sperm whales, group in smaller numbers, and have been observed foraging in shallower water than other sperm whales. Because of these unique adaptations, if the Gulf sperm whales were to become extirpated, there is little evidence that other sperm whales would or could colonize the area.

Sturgeon are described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as the most threatened group of animals on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They have suffered from intensive human exploitation for their caviar and flesh. All sturgeon reproduce slowly, and many species require decades to reach maturity. Dams impede their ability to spawn, and the loss of eggs and breeding adults to the caviar trade means that depleted populations may take decades to recover.

The olive-hued Acipenser naccarii (Adriatic sturgeon) once ranged throughout the Adriatic from Italy to Greece. Their numbers have declined from exploitation for their flesh. Currently only about 250 individuals remain in the wild population.

Acipenser sturio (Baltic sturgeon) can grow to 16 feet in length. Fished aggressively for caviar, they have been reduced to a single reproductive population in the Garonne River in France.
Acipenser mikadoi (Sakhalin sturgeon) can grow to 8 feet in length and were historically common in Japanese markets.  Now, only 10-30 spawning adults survive.

Native to China and Russia, Huso dauricus (Kaluga or Great Siberian sturgeon) are among the world’s largest freshwater fishes, exceeding 18 feet in length and one ton in weight. They are heavily poached for caviar. 

The massive Acipenser sinensis (Chinese sturgeon) were deemed a major commercial resource in the 1960s. Less than 300 wild individuals remain.


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