It’s not really the kind of “first” you want to be: The peculiar-looking but oddly beautiful scalloped hammerhead shark has just become the first shark species to be added to the US Endangered Species List.
Sphyrna lewini, as they’re known, are coastal to semi-oceanic sharks with a number of extremely vulnerable subpopulations. The move to classify them as endangered is in response to lobbying from several animal welfare groups who hoped to secure additional protections for these amazing creatures before it’s too late.
You see, the sharks are caught on a double-edged sword because of their habits; they tend to school closely together in large groups, which may be a useful adaptation for them, but it doesn’t work out so well in areas with active fisheries. Scalloped hammerheads of all ages and sizes are a common bycatch, which poses a serious risk to maintaining healthy populations because it’s difficult for the majestic animals to reproduce at replacement rate when their ranks are continually being thinned. Furthermore, and like other shark species, scalloped hammerheads are also targeted for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in China.
In response to growing concerns about the dwindling populations of scalloped hammerheads in the Eastern Atlantic and Eastern Pacific oceans, groups including Friends of Animals and WildEarth Guardians filed petitions with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Costa Rica and Ecuador also applied pressure to increase protections for these sharks before it’s too late. After considering the case and looking at the numbers, the agency agreed that the sharks were in need of stronger legal protections, and it took the important step of listing them as endangered, joining the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in its assessment of the threats facing scalloped hammerheads.
The US Endangered Species Act is the toughest piece of wildlife protection legislation in the world — like some of the very animals it aims to protect, it has serious teeth. Listing these sharks doesn’t just send a clear message that the US is concerned about their populations. It also entitles them to more legal protections, including: restrictions on the sale, trade, or ownership of scalloped hammerheads and products derived from them; closer monitoring of fisheries; harsher penalties for bycatch injuries; and more.
Shark advocates are pleased by this victory, which will make it easier to protect scalloped hammerheads, but they’re also concerned.
Hammerheads in general are a very fragile shark species (“fragile” and “shark” aren’t words you expected to encounter in the same sentence, were they?) and some fear that relatives of the scalloped hammerheads are also rapidly on the way to endangered status themselves, or possible extinction. Advocates also stress that while the endangered classification in the US provides legal protections here and on goods trafficked through the US (a nation which has been aggressively cracking down on trafficking in endangered species), global action is necessary to protect all sharks, including the scalloped hammerhead.
Sadly, without an international commitment to conservation, these mysterious, beautiful, almost unearthly creatures could vanish forever.
Photo credit: Sham Edmond.