This year, the European Union (EU) Commission presented a biodiversity strategy intended to protect the EU’s natural heritage and build on a renewed commitment to sustainability under the government’s Green Deal. But this ambitious biodiversity agenda is not without challenges, particularly in areas where the EU has been directly responsible for threats to rare species.
Furthermore, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of the government’s conservation efforts have been put on hold. Although most regional fisheries management organization meetings have been canceled or moved online with limited agendas, fishing continues, and for some stocks, this could further deplete already-endangered and overfished species.
That’s why we expect the managers at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to determine that the current state of North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks is so dire that a new management measure must be adopted this year—despite the fact that the commission won’t hold its annual meeting in November. Instead, the shortfin mako measure is likely to be negotiated over email.
Decades of mismanagement—or no management at all—has led to depletion of shortfin makos. These sharks are slow to mature, and the majority of those caught within ICCAT fisheries are juveniles who will never have the chance to reproduce, leaving makos even more vulnerable to overfishing. In response to their low population levels and classification as globally Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has adopted legally binding conditions restricting international trade in shortfin mako sharks.
Despite this critical action, the population in the North Atlantic Ocean is heavily depleted and fishing pressure remains much too high. At the same time, fishing of the species is unregulated in the South Atlantic Ocean, where makos could suffer the same fate as their northern neighbors if rules are not put into place to prevent overfishing.
Together, Spain and Portugal are responsible for the most catch of makos in ICCAT fisheries, and in the United States shortfin mako is caught in sport fisheries. As a result, at last year’s Commission meeting, the EU and the United States separately insisted that shortfin mako fishing be allowed to continue, under some circumstances.
Despite a strong proposal led by Senegal and Canada with eight cosponsors, ICCAT members failed to reach consensus. Their proposal followed the 2019 advice of ICCAT scientists that the body adopt a “no retention” policy—with no exceptions—for shortfin mako sharks and to prioritize the development of measures to minimize unintentional catch, known as bycatch, in the North Atlantic. A full retention ban would improve the chances of recovering the North Atlantic population and would end market incentives that may promote cheating the system. To date, however, the EU has resisted this approach—and in fact blocked consensus within ICCAT on the “no retention” measure—leading to further decline and the potential disappearance of this key predator from the ocean.
Although ICCAT has a mandate to manage its shark fisheries, it is failing makos.
While negotiating over email could be challenging, the science—and scientific advice—for “no retention, no exceptions” is clear and strong. The EU and the U.S. should not let the short-term interests of a vocal minority compel the continuation of policies that are driving mako populations to dangerously low levels. In order to honor its commitment to “lead the world by example and by action,” the EU, along with the U.S., should join other governments and ban the retention of shortfin mako sharks this year. These vulnerable ocean predators deserve a chance to recover and thrive.
Jen Sawada is a manager and Grantly Galland is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team.