Perhaps no one ever captured the essence of the shortfin mako as well as Ernest Hemingway:
He was a very big Mako shark, built to swim as fast as the fastest fish in the sea and everything about him was beautiful except his jaws. His back was as blue as a swordfish’s and his belly was silver and his hide was smooth and handsome. He was built as a swordfish except for his huge jaws which were tight shut now as he swam fast, just under the surface with his high dorsal fin knifing through the water without wavering. Inside the closed double lip of his jaws all of his eight rows of teeth were slanted inwards. They were not the ordinary pyramid-shaped teeth of most sharks. They were shaped like a man’s fingers when they are crisped like claws. They were nearly as long as the fingers of the old man and they had razor-sharp cutting edges on both sides. This was a fish built to feed on all the fishes in the sea, that were so fast and strong and well armed that they had no other enemy. Now he speeded up as he smelled the fresher scent and his blue dorsal fin cut the water.
When the old man saw him coming he knew that this was a shark that had no fear at all and would do exactly what he wished.
Unfortunately, while makos had little to fear in the sea, the people who came from the land posed a real threat. Some were anglers, who looked at the mako’s size, strength, and speed and saw an adversary they sought to vanquish and kill. Others were commercial fishermen who competed with the big sharks for the tuna and billfish on which they both fed, and who were always ready to harvest and sell any makos that they happened to catch on their lines.
For many years, such threats didn’t appear to have much of an impact on the mako population, but in 2017, scientists at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), an organization that manages not only tunas, but sharks and billfish as well, determined that the shortfin mako population in the North Atlantic Ocean had become badly overfished, and was experiencing an unsustainable level of fishing mortality.
The scientists advised that, in order to merely halt that population’s decline, fishing mortality would have to be reduced by at least 80%. Even such a large reduction would not be enough to rebuild the mako population, but it would probably prevent that population from getting too much smaller.
Another stock assessment, released in 2019, found that “the number of pups produced in each year will continue to decline until approximately 2035 even with no fishing, because the cohorts that have been depleted in the past will age into the mature population over the next few decades (the median age at maturity is 21 years).” It further stated that, “Given the vulnerable biological characteristics of this stock and the pessimistic findings of the projections, to accelerate the rate of recovery and to increase the probability of success the [stock assessment] Group recommends that the Commission adopt a non-retention policy as it has already done with other shark species.”
That recommendation didn’t go over well with three of the nations most responsible for the shortfin mako’s decline, Spain, Portugal and the United States.
Spain has historically been responsible for the largest share of shortfin mako fishing mortality, catching many of the sharks on pelagic longlines set for swordfish and tuna; Portugal’s longline fishery is second only to Spain’s with respect to the number of makos killed. Both nations are members of the European Union (EU), and exert significant influence on its fishery policies.
The United States is the fourth-largest contributor to shortfin mako mortality; it is unique among the major mako fishing nations in that the greater part of its mako landings are attributable to its recreational fishermen, and not to its pelagic longline fleet.
Recreational mako shark fishing has long been a big part of the offshore angling scene in New England and the mid-Atlantic, supporting charter boats, fishing tournaments, and those who sell fuel, bait and tackle to the private boat fleet. Thus, many in the recreational fishing industry opposed the proposed ban on mako harvest. An editorial that appeared in the November 2019 edition of The Fisherman magazine set out their position.
…I know we can expect our U.S. advisors to fight hard for reasonable access; the truth is, non-retention of makos by American anglers will have minimum impact on the state of the world fishery. As is often the case, other ICCAT member nations could do so much more in terms of accurately reporting their landings and implementing new gear requirements (circle hooks and mono leaders) in their longline fleets to promote better mako release success, as has already been done in the United States by our fishermen.
The environmental community seems to be blindly working in overdrive to completely shut down our fishery; at the very least, one would hope these folks could bend a bit in favor of existing, historical tournaments, all of which already require permits and boats reporting requirements for 100% monitoring within the shark fishery. One would argue that a limited harvest exemption for our recreational mako contests would have a de minimus effect on the global fishery while positively contributing to the scientific understanding of this species at the same time.
The United States heeded such arguments, and jointed the EU in staunch opposition to a no-retention proposal sponsored by Senegal, which was later co-sponsored by Canada and the United Kingdom. From 2017 through 2020, the EU and U.S. delegations successfully fought against the ICCAT scientists’ recommended landings ban, and maintained their fishermen’s ability to harvest at least some of the makos that they caught.
In 2021, that changed. The United States had a new president, who installed new leadership at the Department of Commerce, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), giving conservation advocates hope that the U.S. ICCAT delegation might adopt a new position on the proposed mako harvest ban.
Additional hope was kindled after NMFS issued a “90-day finding” on a petition seeking to list shortfin makos under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While such finding didn’t guarantee that the shark would be listed, it did say that “the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that [listing] may be warranted. Therefore, we are initiating a status review of the species to determine whether listing under the ESA is warranted.”
It would seem logically inconsistent for the United States to support continued shortfin mako harvest at the same time that it was considering listing the species as either “threatened” or “endangered.” Yet in July, at an intercessional meeting, called by ICCAT, to address the shortfin mako issue, the United States again opposed a no-retention proposal introduced by Canada and supported by ten other ICCAT members.
The U.S. position on mako conservation was not at all clear.
Thus, supporters of shark conservation were both elated and relieved when, at the November 2021 ICCAT meeting, the United States delegation agreed to support a compromise proposal that would completely prohibit the retention of shortfin makos in 2022 and 2023 but, at the insistence of the EU, might permit a small harvest beginning in 2024, provided that overall fishing mortality, including dead discards, could be kept below 250 metric tons (551,156 pounds).
The proposal adopted by ICCAT wasn’t perfect.
Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates International, while pleased that ICCAT has finally adopted meaningful mako conservation measures, observed that “the two year time horizon is totally inadequate for rebuilding this depleted and still declining population…We will keep fighting to extend the ban long-term to give the makos the break they need to recover, while also pressing for additional measures to maximize the survival of makos caught incidentally and released.”
Ali Hood, director of conservation at the Shark Trust, deemed the ICCAT decision a “critical breakthrough,” but noted that “it won’t be successful if we take our eyes off the EU and their egregious intent to resume fishing a decade before rebuilding is predicted to begin.”
That view was effectively echoed by Shannon Arnold, the Marine Program Coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, who said, “We celebrate this critical step today, mindful that the fight to bolster it begins tomorrow. It is crystal clear from these negotiations that the EU remains focused on reviving exploitation as soon as possible. To prevent shenanigans and backsliding in 2004, we need even more countries at the table fighting back with equal vigour to rebuild the population.”
In the United States, NMFS acknowledged that there was more work ahead.
Despite this important step forward, ICCAT’s work to end overfishing and rebuild North Atlantic shortfin mako is far from done. “The United States looks forward to advancing additional conservation measures through future ICCAT negotiations to further reduce total fishing mortality and fully rebuild this stock,” said [Alexa] Cole [U.S. Commissioner to ICCAT and Director of NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection]. “The use of modified fishing gear, including circle hooks to reduce bycatch mortality, is an important element we want to discuss further in ICCAT.”
Those are encouraging words from an agency that is still considering whether the shortfin mako should be listed under the ESA. One of the criteria for an ESA listing is whether a species is threatened or endangered because of “the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” so it is even possible that ICCAT’s recent action will tip the scales against listing, and the problems that listing would cause for fishermen targeting other species, in favor of an ICCAT-approved rebuilding plan.
Whether or not listing occurs, ICCAT’s recent action provides hope that the shortfin mako stock might be restored over the next 50 years, and that future generations might have the chance to see the “high dorsal fin” of that beautiful shark “knifing through the water without wavering,” even as this 21st century winds down, and a new century waits to be born.