Ever since the horror movie Jaws was released in 1975, sharks have been regarded as deadly creatures in the public imagination of many countries. The deep irony – as a senior European Union official stressed Feb. 5 – is that humans pose a far greater danger to sharks than vice-versa.
Worldwide catches of sharks climbed from 600,000 tonnes to more than 810,000 tonnes between 1984 and 2004. This exploitation has been so intensive in Europe that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has warned that one-third of the continent’s shark species are at risk of extinction.
Notwithstanding the wider implications this has for the environment, shark fishing has often been subject to flimsy regulation. In an effort to fill this legislative gap, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has put forward an action plan designed to protect sharks.
“Sharks sit at or near the top of the food system,” said Joe Borg, commissioner for fisheries. “They are very vulnerable to overexploitation, and depleting their numbers may have very serious consequences not just for sharks but also for marine ecosystems and for fishermen themselves.”
His plan recommends that the maximum yearly limits that EU governments set for the amount of sharks that fishermen may catch should be in accordance with scientific advice from international marine conservation bodies. It advocates, too, that fishermen should be banned from throwing overboard sharks that become tangled up in their nets when they are targeting other species. And it suggests that efforts should be made to improve the collection of data about shark fisheries in Europe, as well as to introduce fishing gear that is less likely to scoop up sharks.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) complained that some of the measures proposed are too weak.
“The plan lacks a solid commitment to seek mandatory collection of data on shark catch – a critical element if the EU is to succeed in the conservation of these species,” said Aaron McLaughlin, spokesman on marine issues with the organisation. “Sharks are slow growing and produce relatively small numbers of young. Many of these species are already threatened with extinction.”
Another green campaign group, Oceana, has published a new report, stating that EU countries play a major role in the shark trade. While these countries produced just 12 percent of world shark meat in 2005, they were responsible for over half of all shark imports and more than 30 percent of exports.
The main reason why sharks are hunted is to sell their fins to Asian countries, where shark fin soup is popular among gourmands. France, the Netherlands and Spain are known to have been involved in the shark fin trade in recent years.
This was despite an EU-wide ban on shark finning that came into effect in 2003. While the measure forbade fishermen from cutting the fins off sharks and then hurling the remaining carcasses overboard, it allowed fins to be removed, provided the entire shark was brought to shore.
Borg has urged EU member states to strengthen the ban and to consider closing its loopholes. For example, he has argued that the removal of shark fins on board should be outlawed as a general rule.
Borg is hoping that the plan will be approved by EU governments and the European Parliament by the end of this year, so that the measures envisaged in it can be put in place by 2012 or 2013. The plan applies to all cartilaginous fish, the ‘family’ to which sharks, skates, ray and chimaeras belong. Over 50 percent of all shark catches by EU vessels are made in the North Atlantic.
Spain and China are the world’s largest exporters of shark fins. About 10 percent of the fins traded on the Hong Kong market are believed to have come from Spain. Vigo, a port in the Spanish region of Galicia, and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands are the main European centres for the fin trade.
The organisation Shark Alliance has welcomed the action plan and called on EU fisheries ministers to support it during discussions scheduled for April.
Sonja Fordham, the group’s policy director, said: “The plan’s commitments to science-based fishing limits, endangered species protection and a stronger finning ban are essential to securing a brighter future for some of Europe’s most vulnerable and neglected animals. The success of the EU shark plan depends on prompt follow-up proposals from the Commission and cooperation from member states in ensuring that improvements are accepted and enforced.” David Cronin, IPS