EU promotes whale shark protection and risky blue shark quotas as Japan blocks finning measure

20th November 2023

The Shark League member groups are heralding conservation advances for imperiled Atlantic sharks and rays at this year’s meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) while warning that new measures are still insufficiently cautious to properly safeguard such inherently vulnerable species.  ICCAT Parties agreed provisional protections for mantas and devil rays, as well as whale sharks, reduced quotas for heavily fished blue sharks, and improved processes for ensuring that nations comply with ICCAT fishing and data reporting requirements. Many of the improvements reflect recommendations made in a new Shark League gap analysis.

A proposal from the United Kingdom (UK) to ban retention of manta and devil rays (mobula rays) and promote safe release by 2025 was co-sponsored by the host country of Egypt as well as the European Union (EU), Morocco, Brazil, Gabon, Belize, and Canada. The measure gained broad support from other nations, including the only one reporting manta landings to ICCAT (Venezuela). It was however weakened by Japan to take effect only if all Parties agree again after reviewing a 2024 evaluation by ICCAT scientists. Similar safeguards for whale sharks were proposed by the EU and co-sponsored by the UK, Morocco, Brazil, Belize, and Canada, but also made contingent on additional review and consensus next year, at Japan’s insistence. 

“After highlighting that endangered Atlantic mantas, devil rays, and whale sharks lack critical high seas Atlantic fisheries safeguards, we welcome countries’ interest in closing these gaps,” said Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International. “We are confident that ICCAT scientists will promptly confirm the exceptional vulnerability of these animals and underscore their previous advice that such species warrant precautionary conservation, thereby clearing the way for protections to take effect without further delay.” 

Among the last measures agreed were hotly contested catch limit reductions for heavily fished blue sharks, in response to a new population assessment that warned take was too high to ensure long-term sustainability. The UK had proposed significant cuts in North Atlantic quotas in line with the precautionary approach, but the EU —which takes more blue sharks than all other ICCAT Parties combined – insisted on higher and therefore riskier allotments and fell short in considering other countries’ fisheries as well as overall discards. The compromise agreement reduces the North Atlantic catch limit by 23%, but the short-term chance of keeping within safe levels of fishing is about the same as a flip of a coin. The EU was the only Party to propose reduced South Atlantic blue shark limits, but again failed to adequately account for cumulative landings by countries without quotas and resisted requests to accommodate developing countries. That compromise measure reduces the total catch limit by only 4% and leaves the population at risk for continued overfishing but does — for the first time — allocate quotas among Parties, which is vital for ending overages.

“We thank the UK for their commitment to maximizing the conservation effect of the blue shark compromise measures, that – in the end – do represent steps in the right direction,” said Ali Hood, Director of Conservation for Shark Trust. “While we acknowledge the importance of the EU securing the overdue allocation of South Atlantic blue shark quotas, we are frustrated with the EU’s dogged prioritization of continued fishing dominance over the need to promote equity and minimize risk to shark populations that are already in a precarious state.”


The new Shark League gap analysis reviews ICCAT Parties’ performance for implementing their shark conservation obligations under ICCAT as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). All of the sharks restricted under ICCAT measures are listed on CITES Appendix II, through which countries are to permit exports – including landings form the high seas – based on Non-Detriment Findings (NDFs) that demonstrate legal and sustainable sources. Of particular relevance to ICCAT is the 2022 CITES listing for blue sharks which takes effect within days (November 25).

ICCAT’S Compliance Committee this year scrutinized adherence to ICCAT’s shark measures through close examination of reports submitted by Parties and NGOs. The US, Canada, and Japan raised concerns that echoed those in the Shark League report. Mexico, Namibia, Costa Rica, Morocco, Guatemala, and Côte d'Ivoire were among the countries called out to explain on the record their shark compliance shortcomings. The Committee also agreed to create a process for evaluating exemptions to certain shark limits, in line with Shark League recommendations.

“Ensuring that fishing nations fully comply with ICCAT measures is clearly essential to their effectiveness,” said Shannon Arnold, Marine Program Associate Director for Ecology Action Centre. “We are pleased that our analysis of shark conservation implementation inadequacies within ICCAT has been integrated into the Compliance Committee’s work. This underscores the importance of NGO participation in not only holding governments to account, but also contributing to more workable and effective processes.” 

For the fifteenth year, the US led an effort to strengthen ICCAT’s finning ban by requiring that sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached. The proposal gained 25 co-sponsors but was once again blocked by Japan.