The Pew Charitable Trusts has launched Shark Alliance, an international coalition of non-government organizations dedicated to the science-based conservation of sharks. The Shark Alliance (www.sharkalliance.org) calls upon the European Union to end the wasteful practice of shark finning - slicing off a shark's fins and discarding the body at sea - and adopt precautionary management measures to conserve these vulnerable species. In addition to The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Shark Alliance members include the European Elasmobranch Association, MarViva, The Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, PADI, Project AWARE Foundation and the Shark Trust. Additional support comes from The Lenfest Foundation. Numerous scientific studies document huge declines in sharks at levels that exceed 80 percent over the past several decades, contributing to fundamental ecological changes in the world's oceans. One third of European shark, skate and ray populations assessed now qualify for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (as Vulnerable Endangered or Critically Endangered), with another 20 percent considered at risk of becoming so in the near future. At the same time, the persistent demand for shark meat and the burgeoning market for shark fins - primarily exported to China for use in shark fin soup - have raised urgent calls for the immediate conservation of the world's sharks. Even though the European Union adopted a regulation in 2003 aimed at ending the practice of shark finning, loopholes leave the door open for it to continue.
"Tightening the European Union regulations will save millions of sharks each year and strengthen international resolve against the wasteful practice of shark finning," said Joshua Reichert, Pew's environment director. "Scientists estimate that as many as 60 million sharks are killed each year, most of them destined for China for use in shark fin soup."
Despite their fierce image, sharks are vulnerable animals. Their slow growth, late maturity and small number of offspring make them especially susceptible to overexploitation, and the species is slow to recover once depleted. Moreover, because most sharks are top ocean predators, over-fishing of sharks is likely to cause disruption to prey populations and an overall imbalance in marine ecosystems. Sharks are important to European commercial and recreational fisheries and ecotourism operations. However, those needs cannot be met in the long-term without sound conservation and management measures.
Recognizing this disturbing situation, the 1999 United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) International Plan of Action for Sharks called on fishing nations to develop national and regional action plans to conserve sharks. Despite this and other calls for action, the EU and its member states have yet to develop these critical plans or heed the scientific advice for most shark fisheries. Moreover, loopholes in the EU ban on shark finning allow fishermen to land fins and carcasses separately and permit extremely lenient enforcement standards.
"Over the last 15 years, widespread public outcry against shark finning has led to restrictions on the practice in many countries and most of the world's international waters, including strong legislation the United States," said Uta Bellion of The Pew Charitable Trusts and project director of the Shark Alliance. "It is time for the European Union nations to lead, not lag behind, global efforts in conserving and managing sharks before it is too late."
Worldwide, shark populations have declined such that many species are threatened with extinction. Shark fishing continues virtually unchecked in most of the world's oceans and territorial seas. Sharks are targeted directly for their fins, meat and liver oil. However, the value of shark fins is often many times greater that of shark meat, and the demand for shark fins continues to grow even as reported global landings of sharks are static or declining. The European Union is responsible for significant shark mortality throughout the world. According to the United Nations FAO, in 2003 Spain was the world's largest importer of shark products, the second largest exporter, and had the fourth largest catch of sharks. Other EU members also contribute significantly to global shark fishing and trade, including the United Kingdom, France, Portugal and Italy.