November 15, 2011
Why The EU Shark Finning Ban Needs Strengthening
The European Union is one of the world’s leading exporters of shark fins to Asia. Spain and Portugal have the largest shark fisheries in Europe, with pelagic longline fleets that operate not only in the Atlantic, but also in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Spain is responsible for 7.3 percent of the reported global shark catch, landing an average of 59,777 sharks a year. This makes it the third largest shark fishing country in the world. Portugal lands a reported average of 15,819 sharks per year . Blue sharks and shortfin makos are the species most commonly targeted by their fleets, but silky sharks, thresher sharks, porbeagles, hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks are also caught.
Value of fins
Although people consume some shark meat, the fins remain the most valuable part of the animals. Today, a kilo of processed shark fins can fetch up to 300 Euros on the Asian market . The value of fins provides a powerful incentive to not only catch large numbers of sharks, but also to engage in the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning.
EU shark finning legislation
Despite the EU's being a major player in global shark fisheries, its shark finning legislation (Regulation (EC) No 1185/2003) is one of the weakest in the world, with gaping loopholes that allow the practice of shark finning to continue.
'Special fishing permit'
Firstly, the legislation contains a derogation that allows fishermen to remove the fins from carcasses on board vessels if they have a special permit to do so. Since the Regulation was enacted, five Member States have applied for these special fishing permits: Spain, Portugal, the UK, Germany and Lithuania.
The term ‘special fishing permit’ is misleading because these permits are the norm, rather than the exception, particularly in the Spanish and Portuguese longline fisheries.
Spain has issued hundreds of these permits since the EU legislation entered into force in 2003 . Unofficial figures for the years 2008 and 2009 indicate that the number is between 164 and 185, which means that almost two-thirds of Spain’s longline fleet has used this derogation. The Portuguese fleet is much smaller but, according to Portuguese officials, 44 permits were issued in 2009, representing 100 percent of the country’s surface longline fleet.
In 2009, Germany and the UK announced that they would no longer issue special permits; all sharks landed by their fleets must now be landed with their fins still naturally attached. Lithuania has reportedly only ever issued one permit to a Spanish-owned vessel. Cyprus has indicated that it intends to start applying for special fishing permits in the near future.
The second loophole in the EU Regulation is that the fins legally separated from carcasses at sea under this derogation may weigh up to 5 percent of the live (whole) weight of the shark. This fin-to-carcass ratio is one of the highest in the world and is so lenient that it is theoretically possible for up to two out of three sharks caught by EU fishermen to still be finned.
The third and final loophole is that the fins and carcasses may be landed at separate ports. This makes the current legislation almost impossible to enforce. It also makes a mockery of the 5 percent rule, since there is no way of checking whether the fins truly make up this percentage of the shark’s carcass weight.
View A Timeline for Change, detailing steps taken to strengthen legislation for sharks in the European Union.