Oceanic Whitetip Shark
About the Species
Oceanic whitetip sharks are large sharks found in tropical and subtropical oceans throughout the world. Oceanic whitetip sharks are long-lived, late maturing, and have low to moderate productivity.
Bycatch in commercial fisheries combined with the rise in demand for shark fins is threatening oceanic whitetip sharks. They are frequently caught in pelagic longline, purse seine, and gillnet fisheries worldwide and their fins are highly valued in the international trade for shark products. Their populations have declined as a result. In 2018, NOAA Fisheries listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Information on the global population size of the oceanic whitetip is lacking. However, several lines of evidence suggest that the once common and abundant shark has experienced declines of potentially significant magnitude due to significant fishing pressure. For example, the oceanic whitetip has declined by approximately 80 to 95 percent across the Pacific Ocean since the mid-1990s. Substantial abundance declines have also been estimated for the Atlantic Ocean, including an 88 percent decline in the Gulf of Mexico due to commercial fishing. Given their life history traits, particularly their late age of maturity and low reproductive output, oceanic whitetip sharks are inherently vulnerable to depletions, with low likelihood of recovery. Additional research is needed to better understand the population structure and global abundance of the oceanic whitetip shark.
- Throughout Its Range
Oceanic whitetip sharks have a distinctive pattern of mottled white markings on the tips of their dorsal, pectoral, and tail fins. These markings are why they are called “whitetip” sharks. They are large and have stocky builds. Their dorsal fins are rounded and their pectoral fins are long and paddle-like. The color of their bodies vary depending on where they live.They are generally grayish bronze to brown, while their undersides are whitish with some individuals having a yellow tinge.
Behavior and Diet
The oceanic whitetip shark are considered a top predator, eating at the top of the food chain. They are opportunistic, feeding primarily on bony fishes and cephalpods, such as squid. However, they also reportedly feed on large pelagic sportfish (e.g., tuna, marlin), sea birds, other sharks and rays, marine mammals, and even garbage.
Where They Live
The oceanic whitetip shark is found throughout the world in tropical and sub-tropical waters.It is a pelagic species, generally remaining offshore in the open ocean, on the outer continental shelf, or around oceanic islands in water depths greater than 600 feet. They live from the surface of the water to at least 498 feet deep. Oceanic whitetip sharks have a strong preference for the surface mixed layer in warm waters above 20°C, and are therefore a surface-dwelling shark.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Oceanic whitetip sharks live up to 19 years, although it is thought that individuals may live to be much older (up to 36 years). Female oceanic whitetip sharks reach maturity between 6 and 9 years of age (depending on geographic location) and give birth to live young after a very lengthy gestation period of 10 to 12 months. The reproductive cycle is thought to be biennial, with sharks giving birth on alternate years to litters ranging from 1 to 14 pups (average of 6). There is also a likely correlation between female size and number of pups per litter, with larger sharks producing more offspring.
The primary threat to the oceanic whitetip shark is incidental bycatch in commercial fisheries. Because of their preferred distribution in warm, tropical waters, and their tendency to remain at the surface, oceanic whitetip sharks have high encounter and mortality rates in fisheries throughout their range.
Harvest for international trade
Their large, distinct fins are also highly valued in the international shark fin trade.
The oceanic whitetip shark is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
In addition, the oceanic whitetip shark is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
At the 2013 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Parties agreed to include oceanic whitetip sharks in Appendix II of CITES, with the listing going into effect on September 14, 2014. The inclusion of oceanic whitetip sharks in CITES Appendix II helps ensure that the international trade for this species is legal and sustainable.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the government agency designated under the Endangered Species Act to carry out the provisions of CITES. NOAA Fisheries provides guidance and scientific support on marine issues given our technical expertise.
In 2015, NOAA Fisheries received a petition [PDF, 111 pages] to list the oceanic whitetip shark as threatened or endangered under the ESA.
NOAA Fisheries reviewed the petition and determined that a status review for the oceanic whitetip shark should be conducted.
On January 30, 2018, NOAA Fisheries published a final rule listing the oceanic whitetip shark as threatened under the ESA.