More protection for New Zealand's mako sharks needed after 1200 caught by commercial fishers last year - experts

The mako is the fastest shark in the ocean. But it's also fast running into trouble.

Data obtained by Newshub shows last year alone more than 1200 mako were caught by commercial fishing vessels.

Internationally, the shark is considered endangered. However, the Department of Conservation (DoC) says the population here is "not threatened".

Newshub investigates the plight of one our most misunderstood creatures of the deep.

Known as the cheetahs of the sea, the mako is an agile, efficient hunter. It's feared, even criticised - but an animal critical to our oceans.

"They're the regulators of the entire system. If you remove sharks, you risk the collapse of the entire system beneath them," says conservationist and documentary-maker Shawn Heinrichs.

Off the coast of Tairua in the Coromandel, Newshub is on a mission to document the mako in an expedition led by shark scientist Riley Elliot. Old tuna frames are used to lure them in.

"So basically, the longer the bread trail, so to speak, the greater the probability of an animal swimming through it and coming," Elliot tells Newshub.

After a couple of hours, the first fins emerge - first a hammerhead and then the more boisterous mako.

Once in the water, two more mako appear - one entangled in fishing gear. It has a large hook in its mouth with a large two-metre-long purple trace hanging out the back.

Most mako are caught by commercial tuna longline vessels. The surface longline fleet hooked 1128 mako sharks last year - 78 by deepwater longliners. Another 33 were caught in trawl nets and 20 in set nets or purse seine nets.

These figures are what vessel skippers reported. Only 10.5 percent of all surface longline fishing trips last year actually had an observer onboard.

Forest & Bird marine consultant Kat Goddard says on the occasion that observers are on board, they record more bycatch than what fishermen do.

And she says there are other worrying practices.

"We do know that some fishermen are catching them, killing them at sea to get their traces back and then dumping them at sea," says Goddard.

"The big risk we have is just the unknown nature of how we are impacting them," Elliot adds.

"Without adequate reporting, or observer coverage or camera monitoring, we don't really know what's going on out there."

What we do know is that last year Ministry for Primary Industries' observer data showed 55 percent of makos caught were released alive. Meanwhile, 5 percent were brought back to shore and 40 percent were thrown back dead.

"Over the past 10 years, we've reduced the catch limits for mako shark," says Fisheries NZ principal adviser Dr Shelton Harley.

"We banned shark finning in 2014 and we recently banned the use of wire leaders which make it harder for mako sharks to escape."

Heinrichs has been here filming a documentary on the mako.

"New Zealand is one of the last strongholds for these animals. Across the entire oceans, because of largely bycatch in tuna fisheries, their numbers have been severely depleted," he says.

The mako was given protections with trade regulations introduced at a wildlife conference in Geneva last year. However, New Zealand was among 40 nations that didn't want to protect it.

"If New Zealand really considers itself to be an environmental leader, if you are home to one of those last remaining populations, it's a duty and an obligation to protect it," Heinrichs says.

DoC didn't back the protective measures, saying while the shortfin mako population is declining in some areas worldwide, "the global population is large with over 20 million individuals".

However, Fisheries New Zealand's own report stated last year: "There have been no stock assessments of mako sharks in New Zealand, or elsewhere in the world".

Despite this, MPI insists the species is not at risk.

"The best available information at the moment for the whole South Pacific stock of mako shark is that the population is stable or increasing," Dr Harley says.

Sealord says it caught 110 mako sharks last year. Dead or alive, all were left at sea.

But their skippers try to avoid them.

"So what we do is we look at what are we catching, where are we catching it and then if there is evidence that in those areas you get a greater proportion of shark species, then you don't fish in those trawl tracks, so we don't do them again," says Sealord CEO Doug Paulin.

DoC says the species are not threatened here. But Elliot says we could do more to protect them instead of waiting for their numbers to dwindle.

"I think we just got to come together and realise we don't have the appropriate amount of data on these animals - how many we're catching and killing and they deserve it," he says.

"They're endangered and they're an incredibly important part of the marine ecosystem and that's fact."

Loathe them or love them - Elliot says exploiting an endangered animal is not acceptable.

Even though mako shark meat is of value, Paulin says all mako catch, whether dead or alive, is left at sea.

Newshub wanted to know what happens to the dozens of mako that are landed by other companies.

Surprisingly, neither Fisheries NZ nor the industry could tell us.

Newshub will have more on fisheries bycatch, including seabirds and other marine mammals, on Monday.