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Shark fishing decisions fall short

Fishing nations gathered for the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) failed to adopt recommended limits to protect shortfin mako sharks from overfishing or strengthen the regional ban on shark finning.

The only new shark agreement resulting from the eight-day meeting takes a phased-in approach to narrow the conditions under which shortfin makos can be landed, but includes numerous exceptions and applies only to the North Atlantic. ICCAT’s scientists had recommended mako catch cuts in the South Atlantic, and a full ban on retention in the North Atlantic to allow the depleted population to rebuild over 20 years.

“We’re deeply disappointed ICCAT fell so short of the clearest scientific advice to date for shortfin mako sharks, and are thereby leaving this exceptionally vulnerable species at risk for population collapse,” says Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, a project of The Ocean Foundation. “This measure is only a first step to addressing a true crisis for North Atlantic makos, and must be viewed as a wake-up call and springboard for additional action, including immediate catch reductions.”

The EU, U.S., and Japan proposed cutting North Atlantic mako catch from current levels (3,400t) to 500t, the level that would stop overfishing, along with other measures. Morocco, the host country whose mako landings are on the rise, countered with 1,500t. In the end, the parties couldn’t agree on a catch limit and instead mandated North Atlantic makos brought to boat alive must be carefully released, unless the country has imposed a minimum size limit (at the length of maturity) or a discard ban (that prevents profit).

Dead makos can be still be landed (and sold) by boats under 12 meters, as well as by larger vessels under certain conditions for monitoring catch and reporting data. Whether new restrictions end up cutting catch sufficiently to stop overfishing will be evaluated in 2018. ICCAT can take additional action then, and has ordered scientific analyses in 2019 on which to develop a more comprehensive rebuilding plan.

An EU proposal to limit South Atlantic shortfin mako catches to 2,000t, as advised by scientists, failed after Brazil announced its need to have the tonnage allocated to individual parties, effectively running out the clock.

“We now turn our focus to the top mako fishing countries, particularly those that still have no limits on mako catch: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Brazil,” says Ali Hood, director of conservation for the Shark Trust. “We urge these countries and the EU to begin work immediately on measures to halt mako overfishing and begin rebuilding the beleaguered North Atlantic population, and to curb South Atlantic catches to avoid a similar crisis there.”

Twenty-two parties, including Canada for the first time, co-sponsored a proposal to strengthen the ICCAT ban on finning (slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea) by replacing a problematic fin-to-carcass ratio with a more enforceable requirement that sharks be landed with their fins attached. Cote d’Ivoire, Iceland, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Republic of Guinea joined the chorus of support from the floor. Just two countries, Japan and China, blocked the measure, as they have for several years.

“We are dismayed that Japan and China have yet again stood in the way of an enforceable ICCAT shark finning ban proposed by parties from all sides of the Atlantic,”
says Ania Budziak, associate director for Project AWARE. “We are pleased, however, after much work with colleagues and scuba divers, to welcome Canada as a new co-sponsor of this key initiative to promote best practices for responsible shark fisheries management.”