Oceana, the international organisation dedicated to protecting the oceans, has been campaigning for years for solid shark conservation measures to be established in Europe, a place where one-third of sharks and related ray species are threatened with extinction but where very few are actually protected. Late last year, it seemed at long last this was on the horizon as the European Commission opened an official public consultation process in a first step towards drafting a European Union shark management plan.
Known as the “Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks” (POA), the EU has had an ongoing promise since 1999 with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization to establish this EU-wide shark management regime. After years of pressure by Oceana and other conservation organisations, in December 2007 the European Commission finally outlined their position and objectives for this management plan.
Oceana took this opportunity to submit their comments and recommendations on the EU’s draft POA, hoping to fill in missing information gaps and enhance proposed conservation measures. In their comments, Oceana requested that the European Union end the practice of the removal of shark fins onboard vessels and asked that sharks only be landed with their fins still attached. Oceana also urged that all shark fisheries carried out by EU fishing vessels around the world be properly managed with catch limits.
In addition to their comments, Oceana published fisheries data analyses, showing that EU fishing vessels caught more than 3,200 tons of critically endangered sharks and rays around the world in 2006 and more than 7,000 tons of other threatened sharks and rays. Vessels from Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, German, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Malta, Bulgaria and Romania were all involved in the hunt for these top predators of the oceans.
“Sharks today are facing a real threat to their survival. Nevertheless, they are fished relentlessly around the world and most of the time without any type of fishing management or restrictions,” explained Sandrine Polti, coordinator for the Oceana shark campaign. “It is appalling that fleets can catch as many threatened sharks as they want. Why does the fishing industry still oppose catch limits and management measures for sharks, when all this will do in the end is rid the oceans of these valuable resources and eliminate the profit the fishermen now gain from them?” Polti continued.
Among the hunted sharks has been the huge basking shark. Originally thought to be a whale, basking sharks, like whale sharks, are large filter-feeding and inoffensive sharks. They are sometimes referred to as "sun fish" for their habit of basking in the sun near the surface of the water. Basking sharks are slow growing and reach sexual maturity late in life, between 12 and 16 years of age. In 2006, Spanish vessels reported eight tons of basking shark catches-- four from the Mediterranean, three from the Western African coast and one from the North Atlantic.
“Since 2007, catches of this ocean giant, and those for the great white shark, have finally been prohibited for EU vessels fishing around the world,” commented Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Science for Oceana in Europe. “It is unbelievable that catches of hammerhead sharks, sawfishes, guitarfishes, blue skates and devil fish, species that are facing even higher risks of extinction, are not limited at all in EU.”
Roughly one-third of the threatened sharks caught by European Union vessels are not even targeted for their meat but instead for their valuable fins, which are exported from Spain to the Asian market where they are used as the key ingredient in the delicacy of shark fin soup.
Oceana’s full response to the European Commission’s consultation document for a Plan of Action for Sharks can be found at www.oceana.org.