A record number of countries have voted to protect the world’s fastest shark from extinction in a move welcomed by conservationists as a “wake up call” for fishing nations who have ignored the endangered species’ decline.
In Geneva this week, governments voted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to regulate the international trade in both species of mako shark – long and short fin – in addition to 16 vulnerable species of sharks and rays.
Mako sharks, the “cheetahs of the ocean”, can reach speeds of up to 43mph. They are overfished worldwide, but the shortfin mako is considered especially vulnerable in the North Atlantic. EU vessels, mainly Spanish and Portuguese, were responsible for 65% of all reported catches of shortfin makos in the North Atlantic from January to June in 2018, according to the Shark Trust, and have not been subject to any limit on catch.
Scientists and conservationists have been sounding the alarm over the important species. This year, the shortfin and longfin mako were classified as endangered and put on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list. In June, scientists issued grim warnings that the species was declining faster than previously believed and recommended annual landings of mako in the North Atlantic be reduced from 3000 tonnes to 300, to allow the population to recover.
A demand for shark fin soup is one of the driving factors in the shrinking number of sharks in the ocean. The majority of the global trade in sharks, rays and their products, especially fins and meat, is unregulated.
Conservation groups said the adoption of the proposal, presented by Mexico and co-sponsored by the EU at the 18th CITES conference, was the first step towards proper management of depleted populations.
Luke Warwick, associate director for sharks and rays at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “The CITES party governments clearly sought to strengthen efforts to prevent the extinction of mako, guitarfish and wedgefish sharks and rays. Sharks and rays are among the most threatened species on our planet and momentum is clearly building to ensure that these species – which have been around for 400 million years – continue to be around for future generations.”
Warwick said the listing will also help ensure that fisheries’ bodies, “that have ignored their management for decades”, will prioritise mako sharks as important predators.
While the treaty does not ban trade, it forces countries to track exports of listed sharks and rays and to demonstrate that fishing them will not threaten their long term survival.
Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, said the move was a “wake up call” for many countries. “These decisions offer the promise of a brighter future for these highly threatened shark and ray species, as international trade has been a major factor in depletion of their slow growing populations. [The] CITES listing can help end unsustainable use of makos, wedgefishes, and giant guitarfishes by prompting improved trade data and much-needed limits on exploitation, while complementing other conservation commitments.”
Conservationists urged the EU to immediately implement measures to protect mako and to encourage limits at regional fisheries’ bodies, beginning with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a body made up of 52 states that governs tuna and tuna-like species including sharks, which meets in November.
“Considering that Spain leads the world in mako shark landings, we’re encouraged that the European Union co-sponsored the proposal to list makos under CITES,” said Ali Hood, director of conservation for the Shark Trust. “We urge the EU to underscore this commitment through proposals to immediately ban North Atlantic shortfin mako retention and establish concrete catch limits to ensure mako landings from all other oceans are sustainable. As virtually all fishing countries are CITES parties, we’ll be watching for support for such mako limits at regional fisheries bodies around the world, starting with ICCAT in November.”
Shortfin makos produce few young and mature later than other shark species, with females maturing around 18 years of age – a characteristic that makes them vulnerable to overfishing.