Shortfin Mako

Mako Shark

  • Scientific name: Isurus oxyrinchus
  • Size: Up to 14ft in length and 1300lbs+. Mako found in British waters are generally 300 – 500lb.
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: No record stands. Qualifying weight set at 40lbs.
  • IGFA world record: 1221lb
  • IUCN status: EN (Endangered)
  • Distribution: Widespread distribution throughout the sub-tropical and temperate seas of the world. In British waters they are found off the south and west coasts.
  • Feeds on: Any fish which will fit into their mouths and will also take small seals.
  • Description: Strong, powerful and streamlined body with large gill slits. Snout is pointed, eyes are relatively large and large mouth is full of rows of sharp teeth. Pectoral fins are large, no second caudal keel is present. Colour usually a dark grey on the back and flanks, fading to white on the underbelly.

The shortfin mako shark is a large shark, which is also thought to be the fastest swimming species of shark in the world. Many people are surprised to hear that such a large predator is present in British waters, but – although rare – this species is certainly found from time to time in the seas around the UK and Ireland, and with rising sea temperatures this species could become more common.

Distribution and Life Cycle

Shortfin mako sharks are found off the coasts of Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Australia, India and Pakistan. In European waters they are at the limit of their distribution but are certainly confirmed as being present in British waters, mostly off the coasts of southern and western England, parts of Wales and Ireland, but they have been sighted all around the British Isles. In September 2013 boat anglers reported seeing mako sharks off the coast of Cornwall, while in December 2014 a 10ft mako shark washed up on a Welsh beach.

Mako sharks are closely related to porbeagle sharks, and have a similar ability to elevate their body temperature to levels higher than the waters around them by conserving heat from muscles in special blood vessels. This allows the shortfin mako to live and feed in relatively cold waters. Shortfin mako generally hunt for prey between the midwater mark and the surface. Unlike the porbeagle shark which usually stays miles away from land the shortfin mako has been known to swim relatively close to the shore. Shortfin mako are nomadic and can cover huge distances over their lives. Some shortfin makos tagged in the Mediterranean have been caught in American waters, proving this species can make migrations across the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed that many of the mako sharks spotted in British and Irish waters are in the process of making this migration.

Other Species of Mako Shark

Longfin Mako

A commercially caught longfin mako showing the large pectoral fins.

There is a second species of mako shark – the longfin mako (Isurus paucus). This species looks extremely similar to the shortfin mako, with the much longer pectoral fins providing the only major difference between the species. The longfin mako lives in the warmer waters around the equator, and does not come into the colder, temperate waters around Britian and Ireland. The longfin mako can reach similar sizes to the shortfin, and is also a powerful and aggressive predator which feeds by hunting fish and squid. However, the longfin mako is not capable of matching the great swimming speeds that its shortfin relative can reach.

Commercial Value and Conservation Status

Shortfin mako auction

Shortfin mako lined up ready to auction at a fish market in the fishing port of Vigo in Spain.

The shortfin mako is valuable for its edible flesh, skin (which is made into leather) and dorsal fin which is used in shark fin soup. In addition to this the jaws of the shortfin mako shark can also be turned into a form of ornament, trophy or souvenir. Most shortfin mako are caught on longlines meant for various tuna species, and they may also be caught in gill nets, seine nets and by trawlers. Catches of shortfin mako are poorly recorded in many parts of the world with few quotas or regulations on catching this species existing, and the practice of finning (removing the dorsal fin and then returning the fish to the sea) continues in many countries. In Europe Spanish and Portuguese fishermen are responsible for the majority of the mako shark fishing, with much of what they catch being exported to China. The EU has been heavily criticised by shark conservation groups such as Shark Advocates International and the UK’s Shark Trust, as EU vessels make up two thirds of mako shark catches, but the EU has done very little to protect this species.

Shortfin mako were previously classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN but in 2019 this was changed to Endangered on a global basis with a declining population trend. Numbers of mature mako sharks are sharply reduced compared to previous years and this species is now rare in areas of the Mediterranean (where it is classed as Critically Endangered), and while this species has never been common in British waters it is now much rarer than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Shortfin mako have a long gestation period of 16 – 20 months, although they are relatively fast growing meaning that numbers may recover faster than that of other shark species if the intensity of commercial fishing is reduced. Indeed, a 2017 report painted a bleak picture for mako sharks, stating that even if catches are reduced to zero the species only has a 54% chance of recovering by the year 2040.

Sport Fishing for Shortfin Mako

Due to its size, aggressiveness and the fact that it will make spectacular jumps out of the sea when hooked the shortfin mako is a highly prized big game fish which is targeted by boat anglers throughout the world. Catching a shortfin mako on a rod and line requires the strongest fishing tackle with big game rods and reels loaded with hundreds of metres of line with a breaking strain of at least 50lb. The terminal rig usually consists of heavy wire line, a size 12/0 hook and a longer rubbing leader of heavy 200lb mono as the shark’s rough skin is capable of damaging and potentially snapping weaker line. Baits – usually full large mackerel or similar oily fish –  are suspended in mid-water, and sharks are attracted to the boat with chum or rubby-dubby. Due to their immense power mako sharks must be played for a considerable amount of time before they can be reeled in to the boat. Most recreational fishing for shortfin mako sharks takes place off the coasts of America, Australia, New Zealand and in the Mediterranean. Due to the declining numbers of shortfin mako sharks there have been campaigns by organisations such as the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) of the United States to encourage anglers who catch shortfin mako to release the sharks back into the sea and not kill or retain any shortfin mako that they catch.

186lb Mako

A 186lb shortfin mako shark caught and killed by recreational anglers.

The records state that British record for a rod and line boat caught shortfin mako was a 500lb specimen caught by a Mrs. J. Yallop fishing north-west of Eddystone Lighthouse off the coast of south west England in 1971. The international IGFA (International Game Fish Association) certified world record was a mako shark of 1,221 pounds, caught by Luke Sweeney off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts in 2001. However, in June 2013 a 1,323 lb mako shark was caught off the coast of Southern California. The shark was landed after a two and a half hour battle which was filmed for an American TV programme called Jim Shockey’s The Professionals. The capture of the shark was controversial as it was killed and taken back to land, rather than released. After photos were taken it was donated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association for research purposes.

Feeding, Speed and Attacks on Humans

Mako jaws and teeth

The jaws and teeth of a shortfin mako shark.

Unsurprisingly, the shortfin mako shark is an apex predator (i.e. one which has no natural predators when fully grown). They will feed on all manner of fish, usually mackerel and herring in British waters, as well as squid. However, elsewhere in the world the shortfin mako will feed on pretty much any fish that it comes across with larger species such as skipjack tuna, cod, bass and bonito. The shortfin mako is also known to be one of the fastest swimming sharks in the world, easily reaching speeds of 20 – 25mph, and possibly able to hit speeds of around 40mph in short bursts. The shortfin mako is also able to jump out of the water, reaching heights of 15 – 20ft. Shortfin mako are especially liable to do this when hooked by boat anglers. Despite being a powerful predator the shortfin mako is similar to the UK’s other large shark species (blue shark and the porbeagle) in that it is unlikely to attack humans unless it is provoked. The International Shark Attack File lists forty-two mako shark attacks on humans since 1980, three of which have been confirmed as being fatal.

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