Among the most majestic and formidable creatures to inhabit the world’s oceans, sharks are also some of the most threatened. In the same way that populations of African elephant and Sumatran rhino have been ruthlessly decimated for their valuable tusks, sharks around the world have been mercilessly killed for their valuable fins. Shark fin soup is seen by some as a traditional delicacy and symbol of status and power, and demand is still growing in Asian markets.
A lenient EU fishing policy has meant that European fishermen are responsible for roughly a third of the Asian shark fin trade. The practice of removing the valuable fins from the shark and throwing the carcass back into the ocean has developed because the body of the shark is worth much less than the fin itself. Although the EU finning regulation prohibits the removal of shark fins at sea, a loophole in the EU law allows Member States to provide fishermen with special permits to ‘process’ sharks (and remove fins) on-board fishing vessels.
In 2003, the EU attempted to prevent finning under these permits by introducing a ‘maximum fin weight to carcass weight ratio’. However, the ratio is currently far higher and much more lenient than other countries – at more than twice the scientific-based IUCN guide standard – meaning that at present, fishermen are able to fin an estimated two out of three sharks without detection or punishment.
Hopefully this will soon change. The Shark Alliance – a coalition of more than 100 organisations dedicated to improving shark conservation policies – has for many years highlighted the inadequacies of the EU shark finning regulations. It is now supporting an option to amend the EU ban on shark finning, which would require that fins remain naturally attached to shark bodies until fishing vessels return to port. Scientists agree that this requirement will be the best way to enforce finning bans, and will also result in better species-specific catch data which is vital for improved conservation and management of European shark populations.
A public consultation by the European Commission was announced last week and will run until 21 February 2011. Supported by the Shark Alliance, a proposal will be sent to the EU Council and Parliament next year, in a bid to substantially strengthen EU shark finning regulations.
Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author