Known as the fastest sharks in our oceans, shortfin makos (Isurus oxyrinchus) have been trying to outswim the looming threat of extinction for the last few years. This week, thanks to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), they caught a huge break!
These large, predatory sharks live in the open ocean, reach lengths of 12 feet (3.8 m) long, and live to be over 30 years old. As a highly migratory species, their slow growth makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies these oceanic species as globally Endangered. Prized for their meat, fins, and for a good time (sport), shortfin makos are exceptionally valuable sharks. Subsequent listings on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) require parties to demonstrate that mako exports are sourced from legal, sustainable fisheries.
At the conclusion of the ICCAT – a coalition of 50 countries including some of the world’s largest fishing nations – meeting this week, countries agreed “to end overfishing immediately and to gradually achieve biomass levels sufficient to support maximum sustainable yield by 2070,” according to a statement late on Tuesday. This includes a two year retention ban for North Atlantic shortfin makos (2022 and 2023), an action that ICCAT scientists have been advising since 2017 as “the most effective immediate step toward reversing decline and rebuilding the population.”
“We congratulate Canada, the UK, Senegal, and Gabon, for leading the charge to secure this historic, science-based protections for endangered shortfin mako sharks,” said Shannon Arnold, Marine Program Coordinator for Ecology Action Centre. Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International, is also celebrating this breakthrough: “We’re pleased that the US has accepted the mako ban that scientists advise and hope that it signals a shift back toward leadership in shark conservation. With all the existing commitments and warnings about the dire status of makos, this win should not have been this hard. We urge all Parties to align their ICCAT and CITES obligations for makos, and strive to augment rather than relax this crucial recovery effort.”
The ban forms the core of a long-term international rebuilding plan, the first in the world for this exceptionally valuable, globally threatened species and a step toward reversing the decline of the seriously overfished population. While it is a monumental moment for these predators, it cannot be overlooked that numerous countries have repeatedly proposed this ban, yet competing proposals from the EU and the US for continued landings had prevented progress until now. Since the ban was passed, the EU has insisted on including a complicated formula that many believe will “offer a way for some parties to resume landings after the reprieve.” With its vast longline fleet and lax mako management, the EU remains the main threat to recovery; the EU alone took 74% of the 2020 North Atlantic shortfin mako catch. Spain also grossly exceeded the catch limit last year.
“At long last, we have the basis for a game-changing rebuilding plan, but it won’t be successful if we take our eyes off the EU and their egregious intent to resume fishing a decade before rebuilding is predicted to begin,” said Ali Hood, Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust. “In this moment, however, we focus on the overwhelming chorus of concern that helped us reach this critical breakthrough. We’re deeply grateful for the ‘voices for makos’ – the continuous calls from conservationists, divers, scientists, aquarists, retailers, and elected representatives to protect this beleaguered shark.”
“We celebrate this critical step today, mindful that the fight to bolster it begins tomorrow. It is crystal clear from these negotiations that the EU remains focused on reviving exploitation as soon as possible. To prevent shenanigans and backsliding in 2024, we need even more countries at the table fighting back with equal vigour to rebuild the population,” concluded Arnold.
ICCAT has yet to address whether or not South Atlantic shortfin mako catches will be limited (another suggestion scientists advise), but did agree to allocate among parties the total catch limit for South Atlantic blue sharks as soon as next year. This week also had a minor victory for the lesser-known longfin mako sharks (Isurus paucus), with new measures put in place for scientists to examine their catch trends. Like their famous relatives, these sharks are found worldwide in tropical to warm-temperate waters and are considered highly migratory. However, little is known about their biology as they are often mistaken for shortin makos despite their particularly long pectoral fins and large eyes. Although elusive, longfin mako sharks have been able to escape the same threats their relatives face (e.g. overfishing and bycatch, the global shark fin trade) and since they often caught on the same fishing gear as shortfin mako sharks, it is believed they may have experienced a similar population decline. While they are considered an endangered species, they remain unprotected outside US waters.
Unfortunately, a very popular proposal to strengthen the ICCAT finning ban by prohibiting at-sea removal of fins was once again blocked by Japan. It is suggested this point will once again be on the table at the next meeting.