Step forward for international shark conservation

International Atlantic Tuna Commission agrees to reduce fishing for two threatened species.

Press Release Date: August 26, 2013

Location: Madrid


Marta Madina | email: | tel.: Marta Madina

Conservationists warn higher priority and follow-up action needed.

Antalya, Turkey: The Shark Alliance welcomes a landmark agreement by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) aimed at reducing fishing on North Atlantic shortfin mako and porbeagle sharks. ICCAT Members adopted the binding measure at their annual meeting, which wrapped up on Sunday. The international fisheries body failed to consider stronger protection for the porbeagle shark, considered endangered throughout the North Atlantic, but did direct its scientists to review the population’s status and develop conservation recommendations. 

ICCAT’s decision is a step forward on a long road to international shark conservation,” said Sonja Fordham, Shark Alliance Policy Director, who participated in the meeting.The call for shark fishing cuts must be promptly heeded by Member countries and refined based on scientific assessments next year.  Whereas we are pleased by the action, international fisheries bodies are still not offering sharks the high priority that is warranted by their biological vulnerability, poor status, and rising value. Complementary action through wildlife conventions and new, global agreements for sharks must also be pursued.”

A United States (US) proposal to reduce overall fishing mortality on overfished mako and porbeagle shark populations met with initial opposition from Canada and China. Canada had proposed weaker measures to cap shark fishing at current levels and was eventually successful in adding a clause that exempts Canadian shark fisheries. The final agreement directs ICCAT members without population assessments for porbeagles and North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks to reduce fishing for the species. The European Community (EC) voiced concern for porbeagle sharks. Mexico and Belize spoke in favor of taking action.

Porbeagle and mako sharks, highly migratory species closely related to the great white shark, are caught primarily in longline fisheries in the open ocean. Both are prized for their meat and fins and, as such, are targeted and often retained when taken incidentally. Such “bycatch” is not addressed in this year’s ICCAT Recommendation. ICCAT does require the reporting of shark catches, but most countries are not complying.

Despite data gaps, we know that mako sharks make up an increasingly significant portion of Spanish longline catches and can no longer be brushed aside as only bycatch,” said Sandrine Polti, Oceana scientist who served as an observer to the meeting. This vulnerable species is clearly now a target of fishermen and must be managed accordingly. The fact that countries like Spain, the top shark fishing nation in Europe, are not even reporting shark catches to ICCAT is simply appalling.”

Porbeagle sharks are targeted primarily by fishermen from France and Canada. Total porbeagle catches reported to ICCAT fell from roughly 2,500 metric tons (t) in 1994 to 500t in 2005, as populations declined.  From 1997 to 2004, Spain reported annual shortfin mako catches far in excess of other ICCAT countries (approximately 3,000-4,000t).  ICCAT statistics indicate Portugal had the highest catch of makos in 2006 (nearly 1,500t), but Spain did not report their shark catches for 2006 or 2005. The IUCN-World Conservation Union Shark Specialist Group (SSG) has concluded that both porbeagle and shortfin mako sharks are threatened with extinction due to overfishing. 

Earlier this year, the EC, led by Germany, proposed to safeguard porbeagle sharks under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The proposal was defeated, primarily with arguments related to the lack of porbeagle catch limits in EC waters and the responsibility of international fisheries bodies, such as ICCAT, to manage shark fisheries.

We are encouraged by the recent international attention to the plight of porbeagle sharks at CITES and ICCAT, but more concrete action is urgently needed,” said Heike Zidowitz, chair of the German shark science society who attended both the ICCAT and the CITES meetings. “It is now imperative that the EC demonstrate stated commitments to conserve the European porbeagle population, the most depleted in the world.  EU Fisheries Ministers must agree at their meeting next month to end targeted porbeagle fishing and minimize bycatch, if we are to prevent irreparable harm to this exceptionally vulnerable population.”

Notes to editors:

  • The Shark Alliance is a coalition of 42 conservation, scientific, diving and fishing organizations dedicated to improving European shark fishing policies.
  • ICCAT is responsible for the conservation of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic and adjacent seas. Currently, ICCAT has 45 contracting parties. ICCAT adopted its first, non-binding resolution highlighting sharks in 1995. 
  • In 2004, ICCAT became the first international fisheries body to adopt a binding ban on shark finning (slicing off a shark’s valuable fins and discarding the carcass at sea).
  • Porbeagles and makos, along with other oceanic sharks, regularly cross jurisdictional boundaries, yet are not subject to any international restrictions on catch.   The IUCN SSG has categorized the porbeagle shark as Vulnerable globally, Endangered in the Atlantic off the US and Canada and Critically Endangered off Europe.  Makos are classified as Vulnerable globally and Critically Endangered in the Mediterranean Sea. 
  • The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has recommended measures for the Northeast Atlantic that end targeted porbeagle fisheries and prevent porbeagle bycatch.
  •  In 2005, ICCAT scientists advised a reduction in fishing mortality for North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks.  This year, ICCAT scientists suggested that ICCAT Parties adopt precautionary measures for priority sharks and identified the porbeagle shark as an elasmobranch species of special concern.
  • The ICCAT Recommendation also encourages research into oceanic shark nursery areas and measures to protect them. Most sharks grow slowly, mature late, and produce a small number of young and are therefore more susceptible to overexploitation and depletion than other species taken in ICCAT fisheries. 
  • The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) is convening a special meeting in the Seychelles, December 11-13 to explore new tools for global shark conservation
  • The European Council of Fisheries Ministers meets December 18-20 to decide 2008 fishing limits.
  • Results from an SSG workshop on the conservation status of oceanic sharks will be released in December.