Shortfin Makos in Peril

Mako

Shortfin makos swim through the ocean like they own the place, moving swiftly and decisively below the surface, or cruising up on top displaying their distinctive blue-black dorsal fin, like a flag, to the sun.

Along the northeast coast, they’re the shark most sought out by anglers, because they are a fish of superlatives. Shortfin makos are the fastest shark in the ocean, capable of swimming as fast as 45 miles per hour. They are also among the highest-jumping sharks, able to launch themselves more than 20 feet into the air, something that they often do after being hooked. And makos are arguably the most beautiful shark in the sea, streamlined and symmetrical, with a deep blue back that gradually fades along blue-silver sides to a snow white belly.

Unfortunately for the mako, it is also one of the best-tasting sharks—so good tasting, in fact, that its meat is sometimes mislabeled as swordfish.

As a result, a lot of makos are killed every year by recreational and commercial fishermen.

Scientists didn’t realize just how many makos were being killed until some time last year, when a team of biologists working out of Florida’s Nova Southeastern University published results from a satellite tagging program, which indicated that as much as 30% of the shortfin mako population may be harvested by fishermen each year.

That represents a fishing mortality rate ten times higher than previously believed, and one that is not sustainable. Shortfin makos take a very long time to mature; about 50% of the females are not yet mature when 18 years old. Once mature, they normally give birth only once every three years, producing between four and sixteen live young each time they do so.

Such late maturity and slow reproductive rate does not allow the shortfin mako to tolerate significant fishing mortality.

That was confirmed late in 2017, when the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) released a new stock assessment indicating that the shortfin mako was badly overfished, and that severe overfishing was still occurring. The assessment, which drew its conclusions from three different population models, revealed that the North Atlantic stock of shortifin makos had declined sharply, and that such decline would continue unless fishing mortality was reduced by 75%.

That is a difficult target, as much of the mortality is caused by longline bycatch in the pelagic swordfish and tuna fisheries, not by intentionally directing fishing effort on the makos themselves. Even if it can be met, a 75% reduction would not guarantee the recovery of the North Atlantic stock. While it would halt the decline, it would have only a 25% chance of rebuilding the stock to sustainable levels by the year 2040. In order to have even a 50-50 chance of rebuilding the stock in that time, fishing mortality would have to be cut to zero.

That’s not just a difficult goal, it’s a practical impossibility. The ICCAT assessment made it clear that even if no further shortfin mako landings were allowed, the 75% reduction in fishing mortality might not be achieved due to the level of bycatch in the longline fishery, where about 30% of all makos caught would still die.

In addition, not all of ICCAT’s contracting members were willing to completely ban mako landings in order to better assure the recovery of the species. Some, unfortunately including the United States, didn’t want to forego all of the short-term economic gains that flow from a limited shortfin mako harvest. Thus, ICCAT ultimately came up with a compromise recommendation that would significantly reduce shortfin mako landings, but still allows some fish to be killed.

On March 1, 2018, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced emergency regulations intended to comply with the ICCAT recommendation.

The emergency regulations prohibit commercial fishermen, other than pelagic longliners, from harvesting shortfin makos. Pelagic longliners, which are required to have video monitoring equipment on board that records all fish caught, may retain all shortfin makos that are already dead when the fishermen haul back their gear; all live makos must be released.

The emergency regulations also increased the minimum size on shortfin makos caught by recreational fishermen from 54 inches (fork length) to 83 inches.

The emergency regulations became effective on March 2, but will only be in force for 180 days. NMFS could extend them for another 186 days, but after that, they will expire. In order to begin the process of providing more permanent protection for the shortfin mako, NMFS also solicited public comments on a wide range of possible management measures.

NMFS reviewed all of the comments received, and has prepared a proposed Amendment 11 to the Consolidated Highly Migratory Fishery Management Plan (Proposed Amendment) which, if adopted, will give the shortfin mako protections similar to those provided by the emergency regulations.

However, they are some significant differences.

While the emergency regulations consisted of only one commercial and one recreational fishing measure, the Proposed Amendment asks the public to comment on a range of possible alternatives, including “preferred alternatives” that, absent substantial and convincing public comments to the contrary, are likely to be adopted by NMFS. However, even such preferred alternatives differ somewhat from the emergency regulations now in effect.

While the emergency regulations only allow pelagic longliners to retain shortfin makos that are already dead when brought to the boat, the Proposed Amendment’s preferred commercial alternative would permit any commercial fishing vessel to do so, provided that such vessel has a commercial shark permit and has installed a video monitoring system that will allow NMFS to determine whether any shortfin makos landed were actually dead when first brought aboard. Purchasing, installing and maintaining such video monitoring systems is fairly costly, so it’s not clear how many vessel operators will take advantage of the proposed change.

Non-preferred commercial alternatives range from making no permanent changes to the regulations at all, which would violate both the United States’ obligations as a contracting party to ICCAT and the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, to completely prohibiting the commercial harvest of shortfin makos. Most differ from the preferred commercial alternative only in the level of monitoring required, although one would also impose a minimum size.

There are two preferred recreational alternatives. One would perpetuate the 83-inch minimum size established by the emergency regulations. The other would require anglers fishing pursuant to federal Highly Migratory Species permits to use non-stainless steel, non-offset circle hooks whenever fishing for sharks with bait, a requirement that currently applies only south of latitude 40o 43′ North, or approximately the latitude of Chatham, Massachusetts.

As was the case with the non-preferred commercial alternatives, non-preferred recreational alternatives run the full gamut from status quo (once the emergency regulations expire) to a complete prohibition on landings. Most non-preferred alternatives proposed varying size limits, mostly based on the sex of the shark, or imposed fishing seasons that had different and arguably inequitable impacts on anglers in different states.

Finally, the Proposed Amendment contains a preferred alternative that would direct NMFS to develop a shortfin mako rebuilding plan in cooperation with ICCAT, which is expected to complete its rebuilding plan in 2019. A unilateral NMFS rebuilding plan was a non-preferred alternative, as shortfin makos in the North Atlantic are caught by fishermen from many nations, with the United States only accounting for about 11% of the overall harvest.

While there may still be some doubt about what NMFS’ final shortfin mako management measures will look like, there is no doubt that the mako is in serious trouble, and that such management measures are badly needed.

The public can help bring the process to a prompt and favorable conclusion by going to the NMFS webpage describing the Proposed Amendment, and sending their comments to NMFS before the October 1, 2018 deadline.

Hopefully, people will decide to do so, for our seas would be a far emptier place if makos weren’t around.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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