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Why is the mako shark not sufficiently protected by CITES?

The mako shark has been listed on CITES Appendix II (Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) since 2019. As a result, international trade in this species may now only take place if the "take" from the wild is sustainable and does not negatively affect the species' population in a particular region. When exporting, it is therefore mandatory for the exporting country to prepare a so-called Non Detriment Finding (NDF). In addition, landings in European ports are also considered such an "export" if the animals were caught in the high seas and an NDF must then be prepared in the EU for this "import from the sea". The Scientific Review Group (SRG) responsible for this has reacted correctly and in December 2020 made a negative decision for the import of shortfin mako sharks from the North Atlantic.

However, DG Mare is questioning this decision and believes that the SRG opinion will change because the EU has taken precautions for the conservation of stocks by unilaterally introducing a maximum landing quantity of 288 tonnes for 2021 from the North Atlantic. So now there is a unilateral TAC (Total Allowable Catch) by the EU despite the negative decision of the SRG and despite the landing ban in Spanish ports and Portuguese ports for mako shark from the high seas of the North Atlantic.

Since both the meat and the fins fetch high prices and mako shark is also consumed on a large scale, the fishing industry naturally has an interest in continuing to take this profit and therefore strictly rejects the landing ban for dead sharks.

For comparison: blue shark is sold off on the wholesale markets, while mako shark is worth 20 EUR/kg.

The EU longline fleet in the Atlantic targets blue shark and swordfish and therefore uses so-called shark wires (steel leaders). This gear prevents the sharks from freeing themselves and breaking the lines.

The mako shark is not officially allowed to be caught, but it is of course a "welcome by-catch" for the fishermen, especially as it can be landed and sold if the animals are already dead when the lines are pulled in. And surprisingly, all the animals in the EU fleet are always dead and landed, while, for example, Canada has far fewer mako sharks: Canada, for example, has much less mako shark by-catch because they use so-called monofilament lines in their fleet and no shark wires and, secondly, releases all mako sharks again - dead or alive - and has since recorded an increasing number of animals released alive.

Is there anywhere to file a lawsuit against the trade in this protected species?

Only if a species is listed on CITES Appendix I may it not be traded internationally at all; however, CITES does not prohibit capture but only international trade. Therefore, a species protected in this way can still be caught and traded nationally - although catching it in the high seas/international waters requires an "introduction from the sea" as this is then considered an international export/import. CITES Appendix II limits trade only to sustainably sourced animals, but from experience we know that many nations around the world still issue NDFs for listed species without much scrutiny. In this respect, the EU procedure is definitely better - but can still be circumvented, as in the case of the Mako.

As can be seen from the example of Portugal, landings of mako are not decreasing overall, even though import from the sea is now prohibited there, because now all mako landed is simply declared as caught within the territorial waters (EEZ), thus circumventing CITES and the national landing ban. In addition, mako from the South Atlantic can still be landed because the SRG has not yet made a decision on this - and whether the shark was really caught in the South Atlantic or in the North Atlantic is often not comprehensible, as both Spain and Portugal fish in both regions, often even with the same vessels.

In principle, however, one could file a complaint with CITES against the behaviour of the EU states and the USA, because the repeated postponement of the complete landing ban has prevented effective protection for this endangered species since 2017. And indeed, each individual country is responsible to CITES and a lawsuit would therefore probably also be successful - but such a procedure would take years and unfortunately this species no longer has them, at least in the North Atlantic - and it will soon look similar in the South.

How can a check be made here as to where fishing has actually taken place?

Through fisheries observers. However, the average observer coverage on vessels in the Atlantic for longline fisheries is only 5%!
According to ICCAT Regulation 19-06, all vessels over 12m in length must always have an observer on board or have an electronic monitoring system if they want to keep mako sharks on board. This is to ensure that only dead animals are taken on board and then landed later, while those still alive are to be released in accordance with the regulation.

With the reported landings (over 1000 tonnes for 2020) of mako by the EU fleet alone and such a low observer coverage, it is very questionable how the requirements of Regulation 19-06 will play out in reality. Either the few boats that actually have an observer on board specifically catch mako sharks or the regulation that an observer must be on board is not adhered to and in the port it is not checked whether an observer was / is actually on board when a vessel lands mako sharks?
Electronic monitoring of all fishing activities would also be important for checking where fishing is taking place - but this still does not exist de facto, but is only at the test stage on some vessels.

Only VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) or AIS (Automatic Identification System) can determine where a vessel has been and when, provided these systems are switched on without interruption. But even then we do not know which fish/shark was taken on board and where - and whether it was actually dead or still alive.

What does science now demand?

A retention ban/landing ban. This retention ban is actually even more, namely a retention ban. This means that every mako shark hanging on the line/hook must be released immediately - dead or alive - and must not be taken on board in the first place, but the lines must be cut as close as possible to the animal's mouth. If animals are taken on board, they must be thrown back into the sea immediately, even if they are already dead. Live animals must be released as gently as possible. No part of the animal may be kept on board and accordingly neither whole animals nor parts such as fins may be landed.

The EU, however, is against such a retention ban, saying that it is not the power of the scientists, but the right of the managers to decide which measures to implement. Interestingly, such a retention ban has already been implemented in the past for many other endangered shark species - but their meat is less interesting for the trade, especially in terms of quantity, than that of the mako shark.

What can we do now?

Get as many politicians, decision-makers and other organisations as possible to support a retention ban and publicise the issue as widely as possible within the EU. It must be stressed that this is a species conservation issue and therefore it is not up to DG Mare and the fisheries ministries alone to make this decision. We must therefore also exert pressure in Brussels so that the issue is put on the agenda at the highest level.

Germany and the Netherlands, as members of the relevant EU Council working group, already support the retention ban. However, this is far from sufficient and as many other EU states as possible must also position themselves accordingly.

And of course we also want the support of the other ICCAT member states for a retention ban at the next Commission Meeting of ICCAT in November and even before that at the next Intersessional Meeting in October - so that the Mako might still have a chance.

Call for help

If you are in contact with politicians (parliamentary group in the Bundestag, EU-members, but also local politicians and members of the Landtag), please get in contact with us so that SHARKPROJECT can explain the problem and canvass for support.

And please also inform traders that when catching swordfish and partly also tuna, endangered mako sharks are affected as by-catch...and often even end up as "swordfish" on the plate. Many people do not know about this.
Thank you!

Text: Iris Ziegler

Sharkproject Germany | (c) David-Serradell

Image: David Serradell