January 27, 2022
Alejandra Goyenechea

I first joined the fight to save the shortfin mako, the fastest shark in our oceans, when the alarm bells sounded nearly a decade ago — overfishing of these incredible apex predators in the North Atlantic had put them on the fast track to extinction.  

A long-lived species, shortfin makos don’t reach maturity until well into their teens. Even then, females only have pups about every three years. Yet, this didn’t stop countries like Spain, Morocco and Portugal from harvesting the sharks for their fins and meat.

Despite global outcry — and clear scientific recommendations that protections were needed — year after year, decision-makers gathered at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to discuss shortfin mako, but it only led to disappointment.

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NOAA fisheries swfsc
Walter Heim

In 2019, the species was listed as globally endangered, and scientific projections showed that even with a complete ban on the retention of shortfin makos, recovery would take decades. And still, nothing changed.  

As mako populations plummeted, only last year did the United States and the European Union stop blocking the efforts of countries like Canada, Gabon, Senegal and the United Kingdom and allow adoption of species’ protections to get underway. They agreed to a two-year prohibition on shortfin mako fishing – a victory after so many years. Still, the decision at ICCAT this year, while monumental, is just a Band-aid.  

The outlook for shortfin mako populations is so dire that a two-year fishing ban will not be enough for the species to recover in the North Atlantic. Two years is but a blip in the lifespan of a shortfin mako, especially considering the damage done to its population and the time it will take to recover. Additional measures are needed to help avoid shark bycatch altogether, or at least to allow those caught accidentally to be released alive and unharmed. A retention ban is undoubtedly a win, but it comes with a warning: This year’s “Band-aid” could be ripped off depending on the political whims of ICCAT member countries over the next 24 months.

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Mako shark
Elaine Brewer / Unsplash

That means that we, as shark advocates, have two years to convince countries to follow scientific recommendations and extend the retention ban. It also means we must turn our attention to the shortfin makos in the South Atlantic as quickly as possible. In the South Atlantic, countries have an opportunity to be more proactive, to learn from the mistakes nations made in the North Atlantic and to avoid repeating their failures. South Atlantic makos are not yet in dire straits but may be headed that direction soon if fishing continues unabated. Decades of projected recovery can be avoided and marine ecosystems can be supported if countries act now.   

Could this recent victory for makos in the North Atlantic, though temporary, be a harbinger that the global tides of conservation are changing for the better? I’m hopeful it is, because it is crucial that they do.  

After all, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a healthy, biodiverse planet is good for every species, including us.  

If we don’t protect it now, we may not get another chance.

Author(s)

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Alejandra Goyenechea headshot

Alejandra Goyenechea

Senior International Counsel
Alejandra Goyenechea's primary focus is in CITES, CMS, RFMO's, wildlife trafficking and other international wildlife conservation issues, with an emphasis on Latin America.
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