EU Urged to Curb Shark Finning

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - The European Union needs to strengthen regulations to curtail shark finning, a new coalition of conservation groups said Wednesday. The call for stricter rules comes as the EU is considering changes to its shark finning regulations, which critics contend have done little to stem the practice.

"Tightening the European Union regulations will save millions of sharks each year and strengthen international resolve against the wasteful practice of shark finning," said Joshua Reichert, environment director of the Pew Charitable Trust. "Scientists estimate that as many as 60 million sharks are killed each year."

Pew is one of the members of the new "Shark Alliance," an international coalition of non-government organizations dedicated to the science-based conservation of sharks.

The coalition also includes the European Elasmobranch Association, MarViva, The Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, PADI, Project AWARE Foundation and the Shark Trust.

Shark fishing continues virtually unchecked in most of the world's oceans and territorial seas, even though many species are threatened with extinction.

Sharks are targeted directly for their fins, meat and liver oil, but the value of shark fins is often many times greater that of shark meat.

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Sharks have been swimming the Earth's seas for more than 200 million years, but now face an uncertain future. (Photo courtesy Shark Alliance)
The fins are primarily exported to China for use in shark fin soup, which can command prices in excess of $100 a bowl. Demand for the delicacy has increased as the Chinese middle class has grown, even as reported global landings of sharks have remained static or declined.

To meet the demand for fins, fisherman frequently catch sharks, slice off the fins and discard the body at sea.

Sharks are vulnerable animals and their slow growth, late maturity and small number of offspring make them especially susceptible to overexploitation, and the species is slow to recover once depleted.

Furthermore, because most sharks are top ocean predators, over-fishing of sharks is likely to cause disruption to prey populations and an overall imbalance in marine ecosystems.

Scientists worldwide are increasingly sounding warnings for shark populations. In 1999 United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) issued an International Plan of Action for Sharks, calling on fishing nations to develop national and regional action plans to conserve sharks.

But the EU and its members have yet to develop such critical plans or follow the scientific advice for most shark fisheries. The EU regulations allow fishermen to land fins and carcasses separately - the rules mandate that the weight of fins as a proportion of the total catch not exceed 5 percent. The regulations are intended to prevent shark carcasses being dumped at sea.

Spain has called for the proportion to be raised to 6.5 percent, arguing that the current level forces fishermen to cut off parts of shark fins and throw them overboard in order to comply with the rules.

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Shark fins on sale in Hong Kong. (Photo by Rob Parry-Jones courtesy TRAFFIC)
In 2003 Spain was the world's largest importer of shark products, the second largest exporter, and had the fourth largest catch of sharks, according to figures released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Last week, the EU Fisheries Committee recommended the adoption of the Spanish policy.

Shark advocates contend the regulations should be tightened, not relaxed. They say the level should be about 2 percent and warn that the recommended increase will allow at least three sharks to be finned for every one landed.

"The EU finning regulation is already one of the weakest in the world," said Uta Bellion, project director of the Shark Alliance. "This is a classic example of how the fisheries and policies of the EU dominate global policy and affect the marine environment around the world. If the EU permits this restriction to be weakened, it will be a license to fin and may well be actively copied by other nations and international bodies."

European shark populations have plummeted by some 80 percent in the past several decades and one third of European shark, skate and ray populations assessed now qualify for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Another 20 percent are considered at risk of becoming so in the near future.

"Over the last 15 years, widespread public outcry against shark finning has led to restrictions on the practice in many countries and most of the world's international waters, including strong legislation the United States," Bellion said. "It is time for the European Union nations to lead, not lag behind, global efforts in conserving and managing sharks before it is too late."