Brussels. The Shark Alliance (1) is expressing deep dissatisfaction with the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers decisions for 2008 EU restrictions on shark and ray fishing, announced this morning (2). Although they represent improvements over last year, fishing limits for two Critically Endangered species exceed the scientific advice - for no fishing - to the point where it is questionable whether they restrict fishing at all. The risky decisions were made against the backdrop of the long-overdue development by the European Commission of a Plan of Action for conserving the region’s sharks and managing associated fisheries, which was also discussed by the Ministers.
"Whereas shark conservation in the EU is moving in the right direction, from virtually no restriction to basic limits for some species, such small steps are not sufficient to stem the alarming declines in European shark populations," said Sonja Fordham, Policy Director for the Shark Alliance. "The Council’s risk-prone approach of disregarding scientific advice must change if we are going to avoid shark population collapse and begin a new era of responsible shark fishing under an effective European Plan of Action."
The Council agreed the 2008 Total Allowable Catch (TACs) for porbeagle sharks, spurdog (spiny dogfish), and the North Sea complex of skates and rays following consideration of proposals offered by the European Commission. The International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) offers scientific advice for the TAC setting process (3).
The TAC for the porbeagle shark - a large, migratory species closely related to the great white shark - was increased to 581 metric tons (t) from the 422t proposed by the Commission. While this first-ever porbeagle limit is, as such, a step forward, it was set roughly on a par with recent landings and is far in excess of the scientific advice for no fishing. Given declining porbeagle catches in the absence of management, the limit is not low enough to begin recovery of the population and may not even affect porbeagle fishing operations. France and Spain are responsible for the bulk of EU porbeagle catches, which are driven by European demand for meat and Asian demand for shark fin soup. France and Portugal led the effort to increase the Commission’s proposal.
TACs for spurdog reflect only a 25% reduction in catch, as proposed by the Commission, even though ICES has warned of population collapse and advised zero take of the species. Spurdog meat is sold as fish and chips in the UK and as smoked belly flaps in Germany; filets are eaten in other EU countries including Belgium, France, and Italy.
ICES scientists have repeatedly advised that the depletion of European spiny dogfish and porbeagle shark populations is so severe that fishing should no longer be allowed. Concern for these species prompted the EU to propose listing both species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in June. In arguing for CITES action, the EU pledged to do a better job of conserving spurdog and porbeagle in EU waters. Last month, the EU and other Parties to the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas adopted a binding agreement to reduce fishing on porbeagle sharks. Just yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly called on nations to set science based catch limits for sharks as part of its annual Sustainable Fisheries Resolution.
"The 2008 catch limits for spurdog and porbeagle are inconsistent with multiple EU commitments to conserve sharks, further eroding regional credibility on shark conservation matters and leaving populations at risk for irreparable harm," added Fordham. "These slow-growing species already need many decades to recover to from overfishing – still longer now than if responsible, corrective action had been agreed this week."
Last year, bycatch of spurdog in the North Sea was limited to 5% of total catch, but this year’s bycatch limits have not yet been announced. The bycatch limit is intended to prevent the targeting of pregnant females that poses the greatest threat to remaining spurdog and must be low to achieve that objective. Female spurdog sharks remain pregnant for nearly two years, a record in the animal kingdom. Fisheries often target aggregations of pregnant females as they grow larger and fetch higher prices than males.
The Council reduced the existing TAC for North Sea skates and rays by 25% and left skate and ray fisheries outside the North Sea unregulated.
Earlier this month, the European Commission released its consultation document for a long-overdue Community Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (4), pledged to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in 1999. The document proposes a variety of measures to conserve sharks, including setting catch limits in line with ICES advice. The document will undergo two months of stakeholder comment. The Council acknowledged the Commission’s intention to submit a draft plan for their review by the end of 2008.
Notes to Editors:
1) The Shark Alliance is a coalition of 44 conservation, fishing, diving, and scientific organisations dedicated to improving European Union shark fishing policies.
3) ICES, the International Council for Exploration of the Sea, coordinates and promotes marine research in the North Atlantic and formulates fisheries management advice for this region that is considered by the European Commission and EU Member States.
Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they generally grow slowly, mature late and produce few young.
The Northeast Atlantic porbeagle and spiny dogfish shark populations are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.