Study: Whitetip Shark Numbers Rapidly Dwindled

Species All But Disappeared from Gulf of Mexico in 50 Years

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The whitetip shark, named for the whitish ends on its fins. Corbis hide caption

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itoggle caption Corbis
A whitetip shark.

A whitetip shark. Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Corbis

Common wisdom holds that a glimpse of the oceanic whitetip shark is a rare one. Researchers say the shark, which lives in tropical water like the Gulf of Mexico, has never been very abundant.

Whitetip Shark, At A Glance

A new study says that the historic abundance of whitetips has been overlooked, and in at least one region -- the Gulf of Mexico -- the population has been reduced by 99 percent.

Common Name: Whitetip refers to the whitish spots on the end of its fins.

Formal Name: Carcharhinus longimanus means "long fingers," referring to its long paddle-like fins.

Range: Worldwide in warm, open ocean waters. In the Atlantic, as far north as Maine and as far south as Argentina.

Length: Up to 13 feet.

Age: Up to 22 years.

Source: Florida Museum of Natural History

But, as NPR's John Nielsen reports, a new study tells a very different story. As recently as 50 years ago, the whitetip may have once outnumbered all the other big fish in the gulf, according to a paper published in Ecology Letters.

In the 1950s, fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico thought the whitetip was scarce because it was never seen in open waters. But a study of marine life done at the time, uncovered recently by one of Ransom Myers' students at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, portrays a different picture.

Federal researchers dragged long lines studded with thousands of hooks back and forth across the gulf. The data added up to a population 300 times more abundant than the current one, says Myers.

Myers then read other studies from the 1950s. They indicated that at the time, the whitetip was common in tropical waters all over the world.

What amazes him, Myers says, is that a species that may have once outnumbered the American bison population at its height could fall so far so fast.

Researchers don't know what happened. Myers suspects that many died tangled in fishermen's long lines; others died when their fins were cut off by fishermen feeding the bottomless Asian market for shark fin soup.

Fishermen and government scientists have been critical of Myers' work, saying the fishing logs he used aren't reliable. But they do agree that, today, there are fewer big fish in the sea.

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