Hope Delayed for Sharks in Atlantic

Hang in there. The porbeagle shark is hunted for its fins, and populations could take decades to recover.

Doug Perrinne, SeaPics

Conservationists failed to win new protections for threatened sharks in the Atlantic Ocean at the annual meeting of a major international fisheries commission, but they hope to make significant progress over the next few years. That's because for the first time, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which concluded its annual meeting today in Agadir, Morocco, has agreed to open its treaty for new changes, including to shark management. "This is unprecedented," says Elizabeth Wilson of the Pew Environment Group, an environmental advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

ICCAT, which was established in 1966, manages some 30 species, including swordfish, marlin, and other tunalike species. But the commission does not set catch limits for sharks. Most kinds of sharks are caught accidentally by vessels hunting for tuna and tunalike species, although a few species, such as shortfin makos, are targeted directly for their meat and large fins.

At the meeting, member governments considered seven proposals to improve shark protections, such as tighter regulations on finning. But just one proposal passed—urging members to comply with measures already on the books. Country representatives did agree, however, to start negotiations to amend the treaty to include sharks. "It sets the stage for real shark management in the Atlantic," says Wilson, who expects the process will take a couple of years.

In other news, ICCAT agreed to keep its catch limits unchanged for highly endangered bluefin tuna. The scientific committee of ICCAT reported earlier this month that the populations in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean appear to be increasing for the first time in a decade, which led to calls for the limits to be increased. Because the amount of the recovery is uncertain, the scientific advisers recommended that the existing limits be kept in place.