The world of fisheries management is so full of laws and regulations that it’s no wonder many fishermen feel persecuted by the government. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see the National Marine Fisheries Service trying something new.
Shortfin mako sharks, close relatives of the great white, have seen their populations drop by over 50% since the 1950’s. Though there is a small targeted mako fishery, one of the leading causes of this decline is bycatch from the pelagic tuna and swordfish longline fishery and from recreational fishermen.
Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service introduced a voluntary release program for mako sharks:
“Overfishing is occurring on the population of shortfin mako sharks in the North Atlantic Ocean. This means that shortfin mako sharks are being caught and retained at a rate that could be damaging to the long-term sustainability of the population. If you catch a shortfin mako shark that is in good condition, release it alive to reduce the number of sharks that are removed from the population. By doing this, you can help maintain a healthy shortfin mako population for future generations…Strong recreational and commercial fisheries rely on thriving fish populations. If shortfin mako sharks become overfished, regulations may be necessary to limit the commercial and recreational fishing in order for the population to recover. Releasing a shortfin mako today may help keep the population and fishery strong for years to come.” Source
NMFS isn’t just asking fishermen to release accidentally-caught shortfin makos unharmed. They’re also asking fishermen to report information about the sharks they’ve caught into a Google Maps interface that allows scientists, fishermen, and any interested members of the public to learn more about these animals. Additionally, this project will (hopefully) give fishermen a stake in the conservation of makos and a sense of ownership in the research.
Some shark scientists and conservationists are skeptical about the effectiveness of this voluntary release program:
“Makos have possibly the highest-value meat of any bycaught shark, and are a relatively regular bycatch among tuna and swordfish longliners. They are also very popular among sport fishermen”- Chuck Bangley
I’m cautiously optimistic and am waiting to see how effective this program will be before rendering a final judgement. If current population declines continue, new regulations will be needed to protect this species, but reducing fishing pressure without instituting new rules has the potential to be a great model for future conservation work.