Overfishing not only threatens marine biodiversity, but overall planetary health. Sharks are among the Ocean’s most threatened animals, due to excessive, often unregulated fishing.
Long considered ‘commodities’ due to their valuable meat, fins, and oil, sharks are now increasingly being viewed as wildlife. Despite their rising profile and heightened conservation concern, sharks are still not being granted effective protection.
Several European countries are among the world’s top shark fishing nations and lack the most basic catch limits for several heavily fished shark species. To help address threats to sharks, conservationists have turned to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). For species listed on CITES Appendix II, Parties are required to ensure that exported products are legally and sustainably sourced.
Taking centre stage at the last CITES meeting in August were the exceptionally swift and wide-ranging mako sharks, which won Appendix II listing with support from the 28 EU Member States. The shortfin mako is one of the world’s most vulnerable and valuable shark species.
Mako population declines have resulted from largely unregulated fishing, exacerbated by exceptionally low growth rates. Female shortfin makos don’t reproduce until about age 20, after which they produce an average of only 12 pups, every other year. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies the species as ‘endangered’, yet no international mako quotas have been agreed.
Mako overfishing is most severe in the North Atlantic. The high seas fisheries that take makos from this area are regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a regional body made up of 52 fishing nations and the EU. Although the ICCAT has protected other, less valuable shark species, it has a long history of grossly inadequate responses to scientific warnings about mako overfishing.
This year, ICCAT scientists estimated that North Atlantic shortfin mako catches need to be cut to zero to allow a decent chance of recovery over the next 25 years. The mako overfishing crisis brings an opportunity to bridge a divide between environmental and fisheries realms – an area that has long hampered shark conservation.
Makos are suffering most acutely in the North Atlantic from fisheries managed by ICCAT. ICCAT is considering new mako fishing restrictions in Mallorca this week. Mako protection by ICCAT could inspire beneficial actions for other ocean areas and demonstrate critical steps to rebuild populations that support both healthy ecosystems and economies.
The EU’s responsibility to lead on mako protection has never been clearer or more urgent. EU vessels have been landing more than any other fishing power, without limit, for far too long. The European Commission and EU Member States just fought to win CITES protections for makos. Success relies on science-based fishing limits, starting with an Atlantic retention ban.
The EU should join Senegal in promoting a ban at the ICCAT meeting – and should prohibit its Atlantic vessels from keeping makos, regardless of the ICCAT outcome. It’s make or break time for the magnificent mako shark and high time EU officials chose the sustainable course.
The Shark Conservation Fund supports the work of Shark Advocates International, Ecology Action Centre, Shark Trust, and Project AWARE – collectively known as the Shark League – towards securing the first catch limits for some of the Atlantic’s most heavily fished species: shortfin mako and blue sharks. The coalition is collaborating with others to improve and promote scientific advice for preventing overfishing, and to ensure key governments translate it into meaningful action through ICCAT.
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