A report presented last week at a meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany, revealed that a total of 11 species of pelagic sharks are now threatened with extinction, highlighting the urgency for responsible and precautionary management measures to be established for these vulnerable animals. Oceana, the international organisation dedicated to protecting the oceans, is urging the European Union to support and pass a strong science-based Plan of Action for sharks.
This year, seven more pelagic or open-ocean dwelling, sharks will be added to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, bringing the total to 21 shark species. These oceanic species have typically been thought off as migratory and powerful species that were resilient to fishing pressure. However, increasing targeted and accidental fishing is now threatening 11 of these species, including shortfin mako, thresher and silky sharks. These pelagic sharks join the coastal and deep-sea species already known to be particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
Oceanic sharks that were historically caught as by-catch by vessels catching tuna and swordfish are today officially and overwhelmingly targeted for their fins. The fins are exported to Asia to be used in shark fin soup, a dish often served as a treat at weddings, business meals and other celebratory events. The demand often leads to shark finning, a cruel and wasteful practice in which the fins of a live shark and cut off and the animal is thrown back to sea for an imminent death. Shark finning only utilises 2-5% of the entire animal, and is illegal in many parts of the world.
A growing Chinese middle class is driving the demand for shark fins to record levels, and the EU is a principal exporter of shark fins to these markets. In 2005, the EU exported 2,273 tons of shark fins to the Hong Kong fin market, one of the largest in the world for this product. Spain leads European participation, and the ports of Vigo in Galicia and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands are the European centres for the fin trade.
One of the main species caught by EU vessels for its fins is the shortfin mako shark, this year to be added to the Red List of Threatened Species. In 2006, Spain and Portugal caught more than 3,000 tons of this species. In fact, according to Oceana fisheries data analysis, vessels from Spain and Portugal, and other EU countries, caught more than 10,000 tons of threatened shark and rays. Other heavily caught species, including the blue shark, are not yet on the Red List but have still suffered severe declines in the last decade.
“This situation clearly needs to be rectified,” declared Rebecca Greenberg, coordinator of Oceana shark conservation campaign in Europe. “Sharks, as top predators, are integral parts of our ocean ecosystems, but they are disappearing at alarming rates. The vast majority of shark fisheries are unmanaged and unlimited, and this severely threatens these slow growing animals that produce few young. Fishing nations must urgently implement catch limits to safeguard the future of these fisheries and the very animals themselves.”
Oceana has been closely monitoring the development of the European Union’s Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks. In December of last year, the European Commission opened a stakeholder consultation process for this document, and Oceana submitted its official comments, position and recommendations to fill in missing information gaps and enhance the proposed conservation measures.
Oceana reiterates that the EU’s Plan of Action must include measures to:
The European Union plays a major role in international shark fisheries and trade and has a responsibility for ensuring the future of these animals. The EU Plan of Action is long overdue, but it represents an opportunity for the EU to become a leader in shark conservation and fisheries.
“We need to think about long term ecologic and economic sustainability and not only the short term economic gains. This process will require wide public support and political will on behalf of national governments and the fisheries sector, but we are hopeful that it can be achieved,” continued Greenberg.