Mako sharks get new protections

At the global wildlife trade meeting in Geneva, countries have decided to protect the endangered mako shark from trade.Tuesday, 27 August 2019

A shortfin mako shark swims off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island.
A shortfin mako shark swims off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island.
photo by Brian J. Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection

A proposal to strengthen protections for both shortfin and longfin mako sharks, hunted for their meat and fins, has been adopted  after a 102-40 secret ballot vote at the global wildlife trade summit, which has run from August 17 until August 28 in Geneva, Switzerland. The vote still needs to be finalised at the plenary session at the end, when all appendix change proposals passed in committee are officially adopted.

The proposal, debated at this year’s CITES Conference of the Parties, lists mako sharks under Appendix II, meaning that they can’t be traded unless it can be shown that fishing wouldn’t threaten their chances for survival. Mako sharks were not previously protected under CITES, the treaty that governs the international wildlife trade. Conservationists say this was be the world’s last chance to prevent mako shark populations from collapsing.

"Listing mako sharks on CITES Appendix II is great news for shark conservation," said Elizabeth Murdock, director of the Pacific Ocean Initiatve at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Protecting these sharks under CITES gives these vulnerable predators a fighting chance."

More than 50 of the 183 CITES members signed on as proponents of the proposal brought forth by Mexico—a record-breaking number of backers at any of the triennial meetings of CITES since it was enacted in 1973. (The proposal to list wedgefish on Appendix II also broke records this year, with more than 60 countries supporting it.) During the debate, the representative from Mexico said mako shark populations are "on the verge of collapsing, and that is no exaggeration."

Nonetheless, conservationists feared that opposition from a few countries with substantial mako fishing industries—primarily the United States, Canada, and Japan—would tip the scale. Japan opposed the measure during the debates, and the United States announced afterward it had voted no.

"The population is not overfished," said the representative from Japan during the debate, who added a listing under Appendix II signifies "negligence" of CITES listing criteria.

In the past, the U.S. and others have supported listing other shark species under CITES, but not so in this case, with commercial interests at stake, says Matt Collis, director of international policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “For a lot of these countries, they were happy to list shark species when it was ones they weren’t so heavily involved in fishing,” he says. “Suddenly, when you’re being asked to be responsible, rather than asking other people to be responsible, they’re less keen to take it on board.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which determines the conservation status of species, recently declared both species of mako sharks to be endangered globally and shortfin mako to be critically endangered in the Mediterranean, citing an estimated 50 to 79 percent population decline over three generations, or about 75 years.

Mako sharks—sometimes called cheetahs of the ocean for their speed—mainly live in the high seas, “outside the jurisdiction of any one nation,” says Luke Warwick, assistant director of the sharks and rays programme for the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. Because of this, he says “it’s been one giant free-for-all around the world, catch as many as you can.”

They’re often targeted for their fins, used in shark fin soup—a status dish in Asian countries, notably China, that’s often served at weddings as a sign of respect for guests. Their meat is more edible compared to that of other sharks, which is often acidic and is usually sold as a byproduct of the fin trade for “pennies on the dollar,” says Shawn Heinrichs, founder of the ocean conservation organisation Blue Sphere Foundation.

Mako sharks are both at risk and commercially valuable. So the question at the centre of this debate over whether to increase their protections gets to the heart of CITES itself: namely, does the treaty exist to protect wildlife or the wildlife trade?

“There is a constant tension between—is [it a] trade or conservation treaty?” says Collis, of IFAW. “Our response is always it’s a conservation treaty. While its function is regulating trade, its objective is to ensure that international trade isn’t detrimental to the survival of these species.…Not everyone agrees with us [that it’s a conservation treaty].”

Given both the overfishing of juvenile makos, which reduces future reproductive rates, and the high losses from the natural die-off of mature females during the past three decades, even if fishing were to stop immediately, their stock in the North Atlantic would continue to decline until at least 2035, according to the shark species group with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

One criticism of the proposal was the lack of population data on mako sharks, but, Heinrichs says, this is a common problem for animals that live in open waters.

“How do you count all the fish in the ocean?”

Going forward, this new listing will "put teeth" into efforts to protect mako sharks, says Warwick of WCS.

"Sharks are vulnerable wildlife too, and again CITES member governments have stepped up and recognised that via inclusion in CITES Appendix II," he says. "Momentum is clearly building to ensure that these species—which have been around for 400 million years—continue to be around for future generations."

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mision at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
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