Mako sharks are listed as endangered on CITES Appendix II. Image (c) Patrick Doll.

By Alex Hofford, WildAid United Kingdom 

 

Shark conservation just got a huge boost from Spain and Portugal. 

Last week, Spain’s Environment Minister, Teresa Ribera – and our latest ocean hero – took a very tough stance against her country’s notoriously rampant fishing industry by imposing a ‘Zero Catch Quota’ for mako sharks in the North Atlantic for 2021 and an export ban on all mako shark fins landed by Spanish vessels in 2020. And yesterday, the government of Portugal announced similar measures.  

At last week’s meeting with executives from CEPESCA, Spain’s fishing boat owners’ association, Spain’s Environment Minister, Ribera’s message was clear: enough is enough. WildAid commends and salutes Spain and Portugal and strongly supports and encourages further action by these Iberian neighbors to protect sharks from overfishing. 

The good news from Spain and Portugal comes not a moment too soon. A recent scientific study has claimed that shark populations in the world’s high seas areas have crashed by 71% since 1970, demonstrating the true scale of the problem of overfishing. 

Spain and Portugal’s recent actions were made possible by the listing of mako sharks on the endangered species list at the 18th Conference of the Parties to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva, Switzerland in August 2019, which WildAid had been supporting. This move provided the legal basis for government action. We are grateful that after we, other NGOs and civil society lobbied the Spanish government on social media, Spain opted to listen to the scientists’ urgent calls for a retention ban on mako sharks with no exceptions, this means even if mako sharks are caught accidentally as bycatch they cannot be retained on the boat and landed in ports. This positive move by the Spanish and Portuguese governments shows that it is clear that their Fisheries ministries now have to comply with their Environment Ministries environmental and legal commitments.  

Spain's Environment Minister, Teresa Ribera at a press conference in 2018. Image (c) Ministry of the Presidency Government of Spain.

WildAid hopes that bold action by Spain and Portugal will make it easier for the European Union (EU) to also take a much stronger position on the conservation of mako sharks at the next meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).   Since the EU is the largest mako shark fishing bloc at ICCAT, with Spain and Portugal taking well over half of ICCAT’s total catch in the North Atlantic, we hope that Spain and Portugal‘s seismic policy shifts on shark fisheries will have a positive effect on EU mako shark conservation policy at the regional fishery management organization level.  

We call on EU Commissioner for Environment Oceans and Fisheries, Virginius Sinkevičius to also adopt Spain and Portugal‘s tougher line, and shift the EU’s position on mako shark conservation away from favoring commercial fishing interests towards a more realistic prospect of rebuilding threatened Atlantic mako shark populations. 

With ample scientific evidence pointing to the imminent extinction of mako sharks unless the EU‘s  destructive ‘business as usual’ sharks policy is quickly reversed, Commissioner Sinkevičius should heed scientific guidance and follow Spain and Portugal’s example by pushing for a mako shark retention ban with no exceptions at ICCAT in July 2021 and reduce the entire EU mako catch quota for 2021 to zero. 

We also hope that Spain and Portugal‘s tough new position on mako shark conservation will prompt other coastal fishing nations like Morocco and the United States to follow Spain and Portugal‘s commendable example and vote for a ban on the retention of endangered North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks by fishermen, implement their own mako shark export bans and agree to a complete ban on mako shark fishing in both the North and South Atlantic, at the next meeting of ICCAT in July 2021. 

There has been no word yet from the Portuguese fishing lobby, however the Spanish fishing industry’s reaction to Environment Minister Ribera’s actions has been fierce, and fishermen are fuming. They’re angry as they now have 90 tonnes of unsold – and now unsellable – frozen mako shark sitting in cold storage in Vigo, Spain’s shark fishing capital. Reminiscent of the recent global wave of ivory stockpile destructions, Spanish fishing boat owners are complaining that they may now have to destroy their stocks which are now illegal to sell. Though it would be unlikely to take place in the public eye, we believe that if a Spanish shark fin stockpile destruction were to take place it would send a positive message to the world that apart from the issue of consuming toxic chemicals like arsenic and mercury, shark fin consumption is cruel, unnecessary and unsustainable, and that this Asian tradition should be consigned to the trash can of history. 

Spain’s move is undoubtedly good news for sharks as it is currently the largest frozen shark fin exporter in the world. Nearly 100% of its exports are sent to Hong Kong, which handles around half the global trade in shark fin annually. 

Mako shark protest from outside a shark fin shop in Hong Kong. Image (c) Alex Hofford.

Spain’s supply squeeze will send shockwaves through the Hong Kong shark fin trade. According to UN Comtrade (the United Nations international trade statistics database), Spain is still the world’s top exporter of frozen shark fin to Hong Kong, which handles roughly half of the world’s shark fin trade. In 2019, Spain exported 200,479 kilos of frozen shark fin to Hong Kong. These exports represent roughly 25% of Hong Kong’s total frozen shark fin imports of 778,000 kilos in 2019. Although it is unknown how much of these frozen fin imports are derived from mako sharks or blue sharks, it is expected that Spain’s overall action to protect sharks will make it harder for Hong Kong restaurant groups such as Paramount Group and Choi Fook Wedding Banquet Group to source frozen shark fins, the vital ingredient in cruel and unsustainable shark fin soup. 

Beyond protecting our oceans, Spanish Environment Minister, Teresa Ribera’s progressive stance on other global ecological issues such as climate change has drawn praise from environmentalists. Ribera is a vocal champion of renewable energy in Spain and helped close down Spanish coal mines. Now it is hoped that her ambitious actions, as well as that of Portugal’s, to prohibit mako shark landings and exports will not only help fix the problem of shark finning, but also go a long way towards fixing the world’s problem of overfishing in general. 

Thank you again, Spain and Portugal! 

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $218 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

Journalists on deadline may email communications@wildaid.org