Can multi-species shark longline fisheries be managed sustainably using size limits? Theoretically, yes. Realistically, no.
Size limits are a common fisheries management strategy that are applied to many fisheries and species. Most size limits use a minimum legal size to protect adult fish as per the 'reproduce at least once' paradigm, where stock collapse becomes impossible if every adult can produce one spawner prior to harvest. These approaches can be useful in fisheries where determining catch is difficult and therefore catch limits can be ineffective and potentially cause stock decline. Shark longline fisheries can be complicated to manage due to a deficiency of species-level reporting. Catch limits are therefore difficult to determine, creating a need for other management measures. Here, three different size-based management approaches were tested using the shark longline fishery from Papua New Guinea as a case study. These approaches included minimum size, maximum size and harvest slot approaches. Age-structured Leslie matrix models revealed a broad range of productivities for 12 commonly caught species, ranging from low population growth rates of 1% per year for pelagic thresher sharks Alopias pelagicus to >33% per year for blue sharks Prionace glauca. Therefore, different harvest strategies were required for each species to be fished sustainably. However, management could be applied by grouping similar and easily distinguishable groups of species together. Synthesis and applications. The most pragmatic harvest strategy for all shark species included in this study was to limit harvest to mature individuals using minimum legal sizes. This provided sufficient resilience for all species to tolerate higher levels of fishing mortality than the Papua New Guinea (PNG) longline fishery could impose. Legal minimum lengths were derived from the largest length-at-maturity within each species group. However, while this produced a sustainable harvest strategy, issues with selectivity, post-release mortality, interactions with other fisheries, economic viability and illegal, underreported and unregulated fishing were challenges to restricting fishing to the correct size classes and overall management efficacy. Therefore, while theoretically viable harvest strategies were outlined, it is apparent that size limits would not ensure that these shark species are fished sustainably. Therefore, the PNG longline fishery cannot operate sustainably if it were to reopen using size limits as its sole management strategy.