FEATURE: Makos, Marlin and Marine Sanctuaries

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A Look At What’s Happening in the Gulf’s Blue Waters

THE BLUE WATERS OF THE Gulf of Mexico are a mysterious zone that in recent years have provided great white shark and orca sightings and catches of huge bluefin tuna.

Recent actions by federal officials are making major changes to things happening to fisheries in this area, so we thought it was important to get you updated.

Mako shark populations are not doing well in much of the Atlantic region, including in the Gulf of Mexico in comparison to other shark species. As of July 5, 2022, U.S. fishermen may not land or retain Atlantic shortfin mako sharks. The shortfin mako shark retention limit is zero in commercial and recreational Atlantic highly migratory species fisheries.

We’ve come a long way in marlin management from the days of Ernest Hemingway pictured here with a big catch.

We’ve come a long way in marlin management from the days of Ernest Hemingway pictured here with a big catch.
(Photo: Public Domain)

According to the 2017 stock assessment, shortfin mako sharks are overfished and subject to overfishing. Summary stock assessment information can be found on Stock SMART.

NOAA Southeast Fishery Science Center staff members work with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas to assess the status of shortfin mako sharks in the Atlantic.

Shortfin Mako Sharks

Appearance:

• Shortfin mako sharks have very pointed snouts and long gill slits.

• They have dark blue/gray backs, light metallic blue sides, and white undersides.

• Shortfin mako sharks can be differentiated from longfin mako sharks. Compared to shortfin mako sharks, longfin mako sharks have much longer pectoral fins and larger eyes, a different body shape, and the underside of their snout is darker.

Biology:

• Shortfin mako sharks grow slowly, reach up to 13 feet long, and can live more than 30 years.

• They are not able to reproduce until about eight years old (approximately six feet) for males and 19 years old (approximately nine feet) for females. They have a three-year reproductive cycle and a gestation period of approximately 18 months.

• Mating occurs from summer to fall. Eggs are fertilized internally and develop inside the mother.

• Females bear live pups, which are approximately two feet long when born. This large size at birth helps reduce the number of potential predators and enhances the pup’s chance of survival.

• Mean litter size is 12, and up to 30 pups have been reported, though scientists have only examined a handful of litters.

• Shortfin mako sharks are aggressive predators that feed near the top of the food web on marine fish such as bluefish, swordfish, tuna, marine mammals, and other sharks.

• They have few predators, mainly larger sharks that may prey on smaller shortfin mako sharks.

Where They Live:

• Off the East Coast, Atlantic shortfin mako sharks are found from New England to Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, and in the Caribbean Sea.

• They are highly migratory and can travel across entire oceans.

Gulf Blue Marlin

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, a group of federal representatives have continued to assess and develop recovery strategies for injured marine resources.

Referred to as The Open Ocean Trustees, their most recent plan is a result of past collaborative work and stakeholder input, which aims to restore those affected resources. This strategic Plan will guide restoration of priority fish and water column invertebrates.


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Atlantic blue marlin, which are overfished and overfishing is still taking place, have been identified as a priority species.

The restoration guide will target the following issues:

• Threats to blue marlin 

• Restoration opportunities for the species

• Consideration of data gaps

• Characterizing and reducing recreational fishing post-release mortality impacts

• Development of means to reduce uncertainty in restoration, including providing best practices to fishing communities to reduce impacts

• Identification of larval distribution mechanisms, important habitats, and influences on recruitment 

Post-release mortality rates for Atlantic blue marlin have also been identified by the agency as an area to further investigate. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) even raised the possibility of estimating a post-release mortality percentage in recreational fishing by using satellite tags. 

If this moves forward, it’s likely the agency would include a calculated percentage for Atlantic blue marlin mortality in the recreational fishery, which would be used to reduce the current landing cap of 250 marlins (blue and white together).

Flower Gardens Growth

NOAA is expanding Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from approximately 56 square miles to approximately 160 square miles to protect additional important Gulf of Mexico habitat.

The move builds on the sanctuary’s rich 30-year history of scientific studies and public review of the preservation of this special place.

The reef caps of East and West Flower Garden Banks are dominated by high coral and coralline algae cover, providing habitat for multitudes of reef fish and invertebrates. (G.P. Schmahl/NOAA)

The expansion adds 14 additional reefs and banks that provide important habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish, such as red snapper, mackerel, grouper and wahoo, as well as threatened or endangered species of sea turtles, corals and giant manta rays. 

The expansion extends existing sanctuary protections to these new areas to limit impact of activities such as fishing with bottom-tending gear, ship anchoring, oil and gas exploration and production, and salvage activities on sensitive biological resources.

“Adding these ecologically significant reefs and banks will protect habitats that contribute to America’s blue economy and drive ecological resilience for much of the Gulf of Mexico region’s thriving recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing,” said retired Navy rear admiral Tim Gallaudet, PhD, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator.

“Expanding Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary also advances NOAA’s mission to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources for future generations,” he added.”

Located 115 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, NOAA designated East and West Flower Garden Banks as Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 1992.

In 1996, Stetson Bank, located 80 miles off the Texas coast, was added to the sanctuary through Congressional action.

The three banks, encompassing approximately 56 square miles, include the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States, deep-water reef communities and other essential habitats for a variety of marine species. NOAA and our partners recently gave the reefs in this sanctuary the highest score in an assessment of U.S. coral reef health.

Expansion of the sanctuary emerged as one of the top priority issues during a review of the sanctuary’s management plan in 2012. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which resulted in the largest offshore marine oil spill in U.S. history, also accelerated interest in expansion, with government scientists and non-governmental organizations urging additional protections for marine life and essential Gulf habitat.

 

DIGITAL BONUS

 

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

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—story by TF&G STAFF

 

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