Coral_reef_at_palmyra Jim Maragos US Fish and Wildlife Servi

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Our oceans are mysterious, vast, and home to a kaleidoscopic array of life: an estimated 50-80 percent of all life on earth is found in the oceans. Our oceans are also in trouble. 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 Endangered Species Act (ESA); of the over 2,000 species protected under the Act, less than 5 percent are marine species.

Our Wild Oceans campaign aims to begin righting this imbalance, which does not reflect the scientific reality of species at risk of extinction. To help stem the extinction crisis in the oceans, we have launched an effort to list marine species under the ESA. The cornerstone of this campaign is our multi-species marine petition, which requests the listing of 81 marine species ranked “endangered” or “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). You can read the petition here.

Recognizing the decline of ocean health, on July 22, 2010 President Obama issued an Executive Order requiring agencies to “protect, maintain, and restore the health and biological diversity of ocean…ecosystems,” and to “use the best available science and knowledge to inform decisions affecting the ocean.” Guardians’ Wild Oceans campaign seeks to compel the National Marine Fisheries Service to live up to this mandate.

Groups of species, such as sharks, sawfish, groupers, and whales, are particularly 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 a threat to many imperiled species as well.

Among the serious threats to marine species worldwide is the voracious human appetite for seafood. Sharks are particularly at risk due to demand for their fins, which fetch high prices. Shark “finning” is a cruel practice during which the fins are sliced off living sharks and the disabled shark is thrown back overboard to drown or die of starvation. 

    Great white shark. Photo by Terry Goss

Sturgeon species worldwide are threatened by trade in their meat and eggs. Sturgeon caviar is in high demand, but the harvest of these long-lived fish has lead to population collapses in many species’ ranges. Sturgeon are also suffering as dams impede their ability to travel to their spawning grounds. These ancient animals, who have swum the world’s waters for more than 200 million years, may not survive to the next century.

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   Adriatic sturgeon (Acipenser naccarii). Photo by Stefano Bolognini

Sawfish are large fish closely related to sharks and rays. The sawfish’s name refers to its characteristic rostrum, or “saw,” a long, flattened snout lined with teeth on either side. Sawfish use the rostrum to locate, stun, and kill prey. Sawfish have very high commercial value: their saws, teeth, and fins can fetch up to $1,000 U.S., and markets for sawfish are largely unregulated. Their saws also make them particularly vulnerable to entanglement in nets, and if caught as bycatch, they are unlikely to be released.

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   A sawfish. Photo by Bill Sutton

Queen conch are prized for their meat and their large, flared shells, and are commercially harvested in 25 countries. The United States is the largest importer of queen conch, importing approximately 78 percent of the queen conch meat in international trade (2,000 - 2,500 tons annually). Already 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.

Queen_conch_pc_divemasterking2000 via Flickr
   Queen conch. Photo by divemasterking2000 via Flickr

Climate change and ocean acidification are also impacting our oceans and are predicted to have catastrophic effects on the marine environment, particularly coral reefs and the species that call them home. Climate change and ocean acidification cause coral bleaching and impede reef growth. We are seeking protection for a number of fish species that live in or depend on coral reefs, including the friendly humphead wrasse, a group of groupers, and the gentle whale shark.

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   Nassau grouper. Photo by Clark Anderson/Aquaimages

In addition to petitioning for species protection, we are working to improve the situation of species already listed under the ESA. We have litigated to compel overdue recovery plans for several species of whales, and are working to improve protections for sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Also in the Gulf, we are seeking critical habitat for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.