Nicole Paquette is the vice president of wildlife protection at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Following a recent decision by U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the federal government must now reconsider protecting porbeagle sharks in the Northwest Atlantic. According to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), populations of the shark in those waters have declined 90 percent during the last 50 years as a result of commercial fishing.

The court rejected a decision by the NMFS to deny listing those sharks under the Endangered Species Act, a ruling that may led to better protection for these imperiled fish.

The ruling stemmed from a 2010 petition submitted by The HSUS that cited government studies indicating dramatic drops in porbeagle shark abundance. The court has now ruled that the NMFS misread the scientific evidence, inappropriately denying the petition, and sent it back to the agency for reconsideration.

A porbeagle shark.
A porbeagle shark.
Credit: National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Long-lived, over-hunted, porbeagle sharks

Porbeagles, which can live up to 45 years, may be unfamiliar to most people, largely because they live in the colder waters of the North Atlantic and South Atlantic.

As is true with many long-lived species, porbeagles are slow to mature, with males reaching sexual maturity at eight years and females at thirteen years. Because of this slow growth, the species has a low rate of reproduction, giving live birth to only two to six pups at a time after a gestation of about nine months. [As Sharks Disappear, So Could Shark Week​ (Op-Ed)]

Porbeagles in the Northwest Atlantic have been heavily fished for shipment abroad, where they are sold for human consumption, and as a coastal species, they are a favorite target of shark tournaments along the northeastern coast of the United States.

Those wasteful shark-killing contests offer cash prizes for the largest shark landed, which invariably leads to the death of the largest sexually mature individuals in a population. As is the case with other species of sharks, the species may also be killed for the shark fin trade.

Protecting the porbeagle

The dramatic decline in porbeagles has led international fishery management bodies to call for greater protection. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains the Red List of Threatened Species, has classified porbeagles as vulnerable to extinction.

As of 2014, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which identifies species of concern that are traded internationally, voted to add porbeagles to its Appendix II, a list of vulnerable species in need of greater management protection and oversight.

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In denying the HSUS petition, the U.S. government asserted that the United States and Canada can control their own fishing quotas, and thus they were not concerned about excessive harvest in the Northwest Atlantic. Yet, at the same time the United States actively supported listing porbeagles under CITES at the international level, due to severe declines for the largest Atlantic populations as a result of unsustainable fisheries. The effort for international protections under CITES was eventually successful, although the final 2013 CITES listing came only after NMFS had denied HSUS's listing petition. The United States pushed for international trade restrictions at the same time as it refused to implement the same protections domestically, in order to allow continued harvest by U.S. fishermen. That "do as I say, not as I do" approach to species protection is detrimental to the nation's credibility as an international leader in conservation.

In 1973, the U.S. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect and recover imperiled species and to protect the ecosystems upon which they depend. In rejecting the NMFS decision, the federal court has now highlighted the need to be precautionary in considering the science behind decisions on adding species to the act.

The HSUS believes this beleaguered species deserves better protection to ensure its survival. We applaud this court decision. It forces the agency to take a harder look at the status of porbeagles, and base its decision on the best available science.

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