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Student law clinic sues feds to protect sharks

Porbeagle shark

University of Denver law students have sued the federal government to protect porbeagle sharks from overfishing. Photo: Oceanwide Images

In the midst of television’s popular “Shark Week” this August, it’s hard to imagine nature’s most fearsome predators are in danger.

But DU’s Sturm College of Law Environmental Law Clinic on Aug. 4 filed a federal lawsuit to protect the porbeagle shark from overfishing that has pushed the species to the brink of extinction.

The suit, filed by the student law clinic on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, asks a federal court in Washington, D.C., to overturn a ruling by the Department of Commerce that denied WildEarth Guardians’ 2010 bid to list the species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The suit names Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank in her official capacity. Commerce officials rejected WildEarth Guardians’ petition with a negative “90-day finding” in July 2010.

“We are delighted to enlist the law students of the DU clinic in an act of professional courtesy: legal sharks protecting real sharks,” says WildEarth Guardians’ General Counsel Jay Tutchton.

The porbeagle shark is a relative to the great white shark. The species is known to be highly intelligent, even seen engaging in playful behavior, and researchers say the shark plays an important environmental role, ensuring natural balance in its ecosystem. The porbeagle has a slow reproductive rate and is not rebounding from overfishing.

“By refusing to consider the petition to protect the porbeagle shark, the government has again arbitrarily refused to follow the law when it comes to species prized by the commercial fishing industry,” says DU Environmental Law Clinic director and lead attorney Michael Harris. “But the ESA is not merely intended to only protect cute, fuzzy species with no commercial value; the law should protect all species in order to maintain diverse and healthy ecosystems.”

The species is found in cooler waters, including waters off New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Studies show stocks have dropped 90 percent in some areas since heavy fishing began in 1961.

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