Shortfin mako sharks may be the fastest-swimming shark in the ocean, with top speeds of over 45 miles per hour. Unfortunately, with a 15-18 month gestation period, these sharks aren’t anywhere near as quick when it comes to reproducing. Mako sharks are also some of the best tasting sharks on the planet. This combination is a recipe for overfishing, and that’s exactly what’s happening according to a new report from ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which governs tuna bycatch species like mako sharks.
In response, NOAA Fisheries announced an emergency rule to protect shortfin mako sharks in the Atlantic Ocean in early March. The goal of these regulations is to implement the recommendations issued by ICCAT to protect shortfin mako sharks by greatly reducing how many of them U.S. fishermen catch and kill.
The emergency rule applies to U.S. commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, since the total U.S. catch of North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks is almost evenly split between these groups.
“In commercial fisheries, shortfin mako sharks can only be landed if the shark is already dead at haulback on commercial pelagic longline vessels, which are already required to have electronic monitoring (cameras) installed onboard,” Karyl Brewster-Geisz, branch chief for NOAA Fisheries highly migratory species division, told Earther about the new regulations. “In the recreational fishery, fishermen may only retain shortfin mako sharks that are longer than 83 inches fork length. If those criteria are not met, any captured shortfin mako shark must be released.”
U.S. fishermen catch about 11 percent of the total North Atlantic shortfin mako harvest, according to NOAA Fisheries, which means that this emergency rule won’t be enough to save the species if other countries don’t also step up. The United States is one of the largest shark fishing nations on Earth by landings, and is generally considered to have among the most sustainably managed shark fisheries of any country.
“The North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks are a small but valued component of U.S. recreational and commercial shark fisheries,” said Brewster-Geisz. “In the commercial fishery, shortfin mako sharks are rarely targeted, but caught incidentally on sets targeting tunas and swordfish. Recreational shark fishing with rod and reel is a popular sport and, depending upon the species, sharks can be caught virtually anywhere in salt water.”
Emergency NOAA Fisheries regulations are only permitted under a few extreme circumstances, and the last time they were issued for the U.S. highly migratory species shark fishery was in 2005.
“It’s right to treat the situation as a fisheries emergency,” Sonja Fordham, the President of Shark Advocates International, which has called for similar measures since these new reports were released last summer, told Earther. “It remains clear from last year’s population assessment that North Atlantic mako sharks are being seriously overfished and that actions from many countries are needed immediately to prevent population collapse. I note that the U.S. has imposed similar prohibitions for about 20 other Atlantic shark species, based in most cases on less information.”
At the recent HMS advisory board meeting, some fishing groups complained that this move comes out of nowhere, noting that a 2012 stock assessment found that these sharks were not overfished and that overfishing was not currently occurring. However, NOAA Fisheries has been monitoring warning signs for years, and has encouraged fishermen to voluntarily release mako sharks they catch since 2010.
Conservation groups are calling this a step in the right direction, but note that mako sharks aren’t out of trouble yet.
“While we’re glad the U.S. has taken prompt and meaningful action to stem North Atlantic mako overfishing, scientists’ clear and sobering advice to prohibit landings from this population cannot be ignored,” Fordham said. “We continue to call for a complete and immediate ban on North Atlantic makos, as well as other measures recommended to reduce bycatch.”
Dr. David Shiffman is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying sustainable shark fisheries in Canada. You can follow him on twitter @WhySharksMatter, where he’s always happy to answer your questions about sharks.