Endangered Mako Sharks Remain Vulnerable to Overfishing

Fishery managers must act now to ensure these ancient predators have a chance to recover

Endangered Mako Sharks Remain Vulnerable to Overfishing

Shortfin mako are among the fastest-ever recorded sharks and can migrate for thousands of miles across the open ocean, but their speed and agility are no match for the threats of modern industrial fishing. They are now classified as “Endangered” globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and are considered highly depleted in the north Atlantic Ocean. In response to their alarmingly low population levels, governments recently made a landmark decision to regulate the trade of mako sharks under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This decision makes it illegal to retain makos caught in international waters or to trade the species internationally unless parties can verify that the transaction is legal, traceable, and sustainable. This decision was championed by a record number of sponsoring States, including the European Union.

Although CITES has now done its part to reduce pressure on makos resulting from trade, additional action from another important player is urgently needed to stop the species’ decline.  In the north Atlantic, where fishing is managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), industrial fleets targeting valuable tuna and swordfish frequently fish in prime shortfin mako habitats. According to a 2019 report by ICCAT scientists, these fishing vessels—particularly those flagged to EU member States and Morocco—catch excessive amounts of juvenile makos, which are sold for their meat and fins. With so few mature sharks in the water, scientists say the population will continue to decline even if fishermen don’t kill a single mako in the next 15 years.

The governments that voted for trade regulations at the CITES meeting in August understood that unsustainable trade could contribute to extinction and took appropriate action. But it is up to ICCAT members to ensure that the Atlantic fishery is sustainably managed and to stop its continued freefall.

Unfortunately, ICCAT has been here before. In 2017, the shortfin mako stock assessment showed that not only was the north Atlantic stock already overfished, but that overfishing was continuing. But the measure adopted that year by fisheries managers to help these sharks was inadequate, and fishing continued unabated. Managers also took no action on the other population of shortfin mako, in the south Atlantic, which, according to the latest science, could be in a similar decline.

When ICCAT scientists met earlier this month, they issued some of the strongest advice on record regarding shortfin mako management: Catch of the northern stock must be reduced through a ban on all retention with no exceptions, meaning that no mako sharks, including those accidentally killed, can be caught or kept by fishers. Such a move would prevent loopholes that easily allow illicitly caught sharks to make it to market and would lead to a more appropriate, although still lengthy, recovery time for the species. 

When ICCAT managers meet in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, for their annual meeting from 18-25 November, they should adopt a full retention ban on shortfin mako to uphold their commitment to science-based, precautionary management and to provide important complementary protections to those recently delivered under CITES.  A full retention ban for Atlantic shortfin mako would be in line with the scientific advice for the northern stock, while ensuring that ICCAT is being proactive in the south Atlantic rather than allowing that stock to become similarly depleted and spending many years trying to recover. At the same time, a retention ban would help to ensure that ICCAT Parties are in full compliance with their CITES obligations because the poor stock status will make it impossible to obtain the necessary permits under CITES that would allow for international trade or catch on the high seas.

The Palma de Mallorca meeting gives ICCAT a chance to make up for previous missteps in mako shark management. Anything less than a full retention ban for all mako shark stocks would be a setback. Instead, managers must build on the progress of CITES and ensure a future where not only is sustainable trade possible—but there are plenty of shortfin makos left to fish.

Amanda Nickson directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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