The international marine conservation organization Oceana has released a report aimed at European Union (EU) Members of Parliament (Euro MPs) to express its concern about a decision that will be taken in the European Parliament (EP) Committee on Fisheries on August 28th that could support the killing of millions of sharks each year. Oceana calls on the EU to strengthen European regulations for shark fisheries management and to close major loopholes within the shark finning regulation to ensure the ban is properly enforced.
Sharks play key roles as top ocean predators, helping to maintain balance and biodiversity within ocean ecosystems. Unfortunately, they are increasingly threatened by overfishing, and their low fecundity and late age of maturity make their populations incapable of recovering at the same rate they are exploited. Roughly one-third of all of the sharks and related ray species in European waters assessed to date, nearly 40 species in all, are considered “threatened” by extinction according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
“Shark finning is an incredibly wasteful practice that threatens already overexploited shark populations. It consists of cutting off shark fins and tossing the dead or dying bodies back into the water, utilizing only 2%-5% of the animal and throwing away sources of protein and potential commercial or medicinal products,” stated Xavier Pastor, director of Oceana in Europe. Finning occurs because the fins, ultimately used in the Asian delicacy of shark fin soup, are often much more highly valued than the remaining body parts. In some cases prices can exceed 100 euros per kilo.
This wasteful practice has been rightfully banned in EU waters and vessels since 2003. However, a recent EP draft report by a Spanish socialist Euro MP, Rosa Miguélez Ramos, apparently reacting to pressure by her political constituency’s fisheries lobby, threatens to endorse illegal shark finning in EU waters.
The report attempts to play a numbers game with the European shark finning regulation. Specifically, it recommends increasing the legislated ratio of fin weight to body weight which is used to implement the finning ban. According to current legislation, vessels that use all parts of a shark’s body can obtain a special permit allowing them to capture sharks and remove their fins if it will lead to more efficient storing and processing on board. To avoid fraud, a ratio, based on the percentage that fins make up of the entire body weight, is used as a means of checking whether the amount of fins landed corresponds to the amount of carcasses landed. This ensures that finning, and the subsequent disposal of shark bodies, has not occurred.
A ratio of 5% has been adopted by nations and fisheries management bodies worldwide as the proper biological proportion between fin weight and body weight. Theoretically, the amount of fins landed by each vessel should not exceed 5% of the weight of the gutted/beheaded sharks caught by that vessel. Even though the average biological proportion of fin to gutted body weight is lower, the 5% ratio has been confirmed by scientists as an appropriate upper limit for all sharks in mixed shark fisheries, allowing fishermen some flexibility and a margin of error. The European legislation is already the weakest in the world, as it applies to the whole weight of the shark and not the dressed (gutted) weight like other regulations, exceeding the science-based limit and allowing a higher percentage of fins to be landed.
Ms. Miguélez Ramos recommends increasing the European legislated 5% ratio to 6.5%, particularly in respect to the blue shark, Prionacea glauca. Oceana believes this increase is grossly excessive, leaves significant room for illegal finning practices to occur, and leads to inadequate fisheries management. According to the IUCN, allowing an amended fin to whole weight ratio of 6% would mean fishermen could fin and discard two or three sharks for every single shark landed, and still meet the “correct” ratio. This means that about 66% of all sharks caught would have their fins cut off and be tossed overboard.
Oceana further notes that Ms. Miguélez Ramos’s statement that the EU´s longline fleet is forced to discard a portion of blue shark fins in order to comply with the 5% regulation is entirely false. In fact, a 5% ratio of fin weight to whole weight is already more than twice the biological ratio established for this species through scientific studies.
Ms. Miguélez Ramos’s report will be debated and voted on in the Fisheries Committee of the EP at the end of August and in the plenary session of the Parliament in October 2006. Oceana is concerned that the EP might accept the proposal to increase the ratio of fin weight to body weight and recommend that the European Commission do so as well. Oceana urges the EP to reject calls to increase the ratio so that the banned practice of shark finning cannot take place.
Oceana also urges the EU to close the loopholes in the European shark finning regulation that prevent it from meeting its goal of ensuring the future sustainability of shark populations. Specifically, Oceana recommends amending the regulation to apply the ratio to the dressed (gutted) weight of the shark, and not the whole weight. In addition, carcasses and corresponding fins should be required to be transhipped simultaneously and landed together in the same port. Additional controls on catches, logbooks maintenance, and reporting should also be agreed.
“In addition to curtailing excessive shark mortality, these controls would also improve the quality of species-specific shark landing data used for scientific studies, a critical element for monitoring shark stocks and establishing the fisheries management plans so desperately needed for these declining species,” stated Ricardo Aguilar, director of research for Oceana in Europe.