By City News Service
The tide is turning for thresher sharks in Southern California, as conservationists put pressure on markets and fisherman, who prize the species for its steaks, it was reported Sunday.
Captain Scott Hawkins of the Jody H recently came to port in San Diego with 58 threshers in his hold, but he found the market for the fish had suddenly evaporated, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Fish advocacy groups, alarmed by the tens of millions of sharks killed each year, say there's not enough data about threshers to justify a local fishery.
The small-mouthed, long-tailed fish, however, is widely considered the tastiest among sharks.
Hawkins and other fishermen say they are caught in the middle, even though regulators say common threshers are rebounding and well-managed along the state's coast.
"The only people who get hurt by this are the U.S. fishermen," said Hawkins, a third-generation commercial angler. "Third-world countries remain untouched, and they are fishing all species of shark with no consequences."
The failing thresher market combined with a bad year for swordfish has dealt another blow to the San Diego-area's fishing fleet, which has endured setbacks as fisheries for tuna and other species have withered.
In some cases, conservationists have persuaded retailers, such as Henry's Farmers Market, to stop offering thresher shark, the Union-Tribune reported.
"Aspects of the life history of this species are unknown or poorly understood," said Tobias Aguirre, executive director of FishWise, a group in Santa Cruz that advocates for sustainable catches. "This fishery should be approached with considerable caution, if at all."
Sharks, once considered junk fish in this country, are endangered worldwide, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In June 2009, the group estimated that a third of open-ocean sharks are threatened with extinction, primarily due to overfishing.
Shark fin soup remains popular in parts of Asia, though the practice "finning" — hacking off their fins and throwing the sharks back in the water to die — has been largely banned.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act, designed to strengthen safeguards against finning, which the Humane Society of the United States links to the deaths of 73 million sharks a year.
Biologist Craig Heberer at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Carlsbad, however, said the thresher population off California is healthy.
"These fishermen are following the rules and they are among the most heavily regulated fisheries on the West Coast," Heberer told the newspaper. "They should not be penalized by campaigns that paint all fisheries the same"
Heberer said more than 80 percent of the thresher shark sold in this country is imported, partly because of conservation restrictions on domestic fisheries.
Even if Hawkins was unable to find a market for his recent haul, the fish did not go to waste. He donated the catch to Just Call Us Volunteers, who made the shark into about 200 pounds of fish tacos that were given to homeless people.