Despite years of overfishing of shortfin mako sharks in the Atlantic Ocean and clear data showing this was driving a decline in the species, regional fisheries managers failed to act. They now have a chance to improve the outlook for this endangered species: The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) will meet 6-8 July to discuss, among other things, a “no retention” policy for shortfin mako by longline fishing fleets targeting tuna and swordfish.
Shortfin mako sharks are classified as Endangered globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. In response to drastic declines in their population levels, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) now regulates international trade of makos. The listing requires that CITES member countries demonstrate that any international trade of the species, including retaining makos caught in international waters, is sustainable, traceable, and legal. In 2019, ICCAT tried unsuccessfully to prevent the CITES listing, pointing to the Commission’s responsibility for managing longline fisheries targeting tuna and swordfish, but the inadequate protections for makos led to the CITES listing.
Even with regulation of international trade, scientists agree the current management of shortfin makos in the North Atlantic is still insufficient to recover the population.
It is therefore critical that ICCAT members, at their July meeting, finally agree to a “no retention” policy in alignment with CITES’ requirements and the repeated advice of ICCAT’s own scientists. Since the shortfin mako population status has become so dire, scientists have said that a no retention policy alone will not be enough to rebuild the population in the North Atlantic. Additional measures are needed to help avoid shark bycatch altogether, or at least allow those accidentally caught to be released alive and in good condition.
As in the previous two years, three proposals from member governments (one each from Canada and co-sponsors, the European Union, and the United States) are on the table that attempt to address some of the challenges facing shortfin makos, but a new proposal by the Commission Chair sets the stage for a more comprehensive plan for North Atlantic shortfin mako recovery. It includes important elements from each government proposal, but does so in a way that not only reflects the scientific advice but includes bycatch mitigation and safe handling measures, and increased observer coverage—all elements that experts say are needed to reduce mako mortality. A number of details will still need to be negotiated, but the Chair’s proposal—if coupled with a science-based limit on mako mortality and measures to establish management of the South Atlantic population of shortfin makos, as included in Canada’s proposal—should be supported and adopted as soon as possible.
Historically, proposals on shortfin mako sharks by the European Union and the United States, which have sacrificed long-term sustainability for the short-term interests of vocal minorities, such as the fleets of Spain and Portugal in the EU and sport fishers in the U.S., have impeded consensus on a science-based measure. In fact, even though the EU has implemented CITES restrictions for the species, it still advocates for continued mako fishing in ICCAT waters. Such self-contradicting management will only drive further declines in the species and thus the EU should drop its push for continued fishing immediately. The Chair’s proposal provides the way forward.
Inaction this year could lead to more drastic measures across fisheries
ICCAT is running out of time to reduce the unsustainable mortality of shortfin mako sharks and help the north Atlantic population survive. Scientific advice has been clear for four years: no retention plus mitigation measures are needed to recover the population. In fact, the shortfin mako population is approaching levels so concerning that ICCAT might, under its own rules, be forced to shut down fishing for Atlantic swordfish or blue sharks. This would lead to vessels not getting to catch their full quota of these stocks, with potential economic repercussions.
Shortfin makos deserve a chance to recover, and ICCAT managers have an obligation to protect their future. The Pew Charitable Trusts encourages all ICCAT members to voice immediate support for the Chair’s proposal. That would pave the way for swift agreement in July to bring this proposal forward for formal adoption at ICCAT’s annual meeting in November.
KerriLynn Miller is an associate manager and Grantly Galland is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.