Time is running out to save the cheetah of the sea - will nations act?
Credit: George Schellenger
Freelance journalist Caroline Elliott reveals the perils faced by the endangered Shortfin Mako shark which could become extinct without urgent international action.
When you’re asked to name a shark, chances are you’ll say Great White or Hammerhead. In fact, there are over 500 species globally, and the Shortfin Mako is currently making headlines.
Deemed the ‘cheetah of the sea’, reaching speeds of 46 mph, the Shortfin Mako is the fastest shark in water and one of the fastest creatures on earth.
Prized by sport fishers, Shortfin Mako flip and fight, making them hard to keep on the line and pull aboard once caught.
But these sharks are especially vulnerable as they’re considered a valuable shark for ‘finning’ – a cruel practice which sees their fins removed before the animals are simply dropped back in to the ocean. They are also opportunistic hunters, attacking fish caught in nets, and often get tangled and die as bycatch.
According to Ian Campbell, Associate Director of Policy and Campaigns for the PADI AWARE Foundation, “overfishing is by far the biggest threat to Shortfin Mako sharks, with the problem particularly dire in the Atlantic”.
“In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified Shortfin Mako sharks as Endangered, with overfishing the primary issue. They are caught as bycatch by commercial tuna fishing vessels and are kept for their high value for their meat, fins and livers”.
The trade of endangered species is not banned, but as Campbell explains, “products are restricted, and can only be traded if catches don’t have a significant detrimental effect on their populations”. International trade of plants and animals is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
However scientists agree that even with regulation, the current management of Shortfin Makos in the North Atlantic is still not sufficient for their population to recover.
Long-term sustainability has historically been sacrificed for the short-term interests of the fishing fleets of Spain and Portugal, and sport fishers in the U.S.
Scientists believe the most effective and immediate measure to stabilize and begin to rebuild the population would be a ‘no retention’ policy, meaning to Shortfin Makos caught by fishermen would have to be released. Such a move would come under the authority of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
“If catches were banned today, as advised, then it would still take decades for the populations to return to sustainable levels,” Campbell warns.
Attaching a SPOT tag through the dorsal fin. Credit: George Schellenger
Scientists advise however that the ‘no retention’ policy alone will not be enough. Additional measures will be required to help avoid bycatch, or at least allow those accidentally caught to be released alive and in good health. Proposals include increased observer coverage, safe handling measures and fishing quotas.
Assistant Professor Brad Wetherbee works in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. “There needs to be better enforcement to discourage recreational fishers from retaining Mako sharks that are smaller than allowed,” he says.
“Time/area closures in parts of the ocean where Mako Sharks are abundant during specific times of the year would be effective in protecting large numbers of sharks. Establishing such closures would be difficult over objections from fishers, but such management policy has been accomplished for other species”.
International cooperation is key
Additional measures have been debated since 2019, but to date an agreement has failed to be reached by all ICCAT members.
Campbell explains that “governments such as Canada and Senegal, backed by others such as the UK, China, Japan, Panama and Egypt, are pushing for a ban on catching Mako sharks in the Atlantic. The European Union and the US are opposing the ban and are pushing to keep catching Mako sharks, despite the science and the will of other governments”.
His view on the reluctance of the EU to back the ban is supported by Alex Hofford, a Trustee of Shark Guardian, who leads their campaign on Mako shark involvement. Hofford argues that the EU is giving the green light to Spanish and Portuguese fleets and has been ignoring scientific advice since 2017.
Hofford says he cannot understand why an EU ban has not yet been agreed upon, but believes the system is heavily influenced by the Spanish and Portuguese.
Nations must implement a 'no retention' policy to give the Mako shark population a chance of stabilising. Credit: George Schellenger
On 8th July 2021, a decision by the ICCAT to ban the catching of Mako sharks was stalled again by the EU and the United States. Both have repeatedly offered competing proposals that include exceptions for landing Makos, against scientific advice.
Talks at the ICCAT are expected to continue over the coming months to pave the way for an agreement to be reached, and formal adoption at the annual meeting in November
So what can we do while our governments wrangle over this issue? Hofford praises Shark League for leading an exemplary campaign backed by scientists.#Rally4Makos aims to inform and equip individuals to send a clear message to put science at the heart of shark conservation.
Assistant Professor Wetherbee and his team are conducting several research projects on movement and habitat use of Mako sharks. They welcome contributions to the University of Rhode Island to support their work. Please visit https://www.uri.edu/giving/.
The PADI AWARE Foundation have developed a ‘Mako Champion map’ with their partners at Shark League. They’ve also provided an easy way to connect with relevant decision makers. For information, go to http://www.sharkleague.org/mako-champions/.