Portugal pivotal to saving sharks EU presidency brings opportunity to conserve key species

Portugal pivotal to saving sharks EU presidency brings opportunity to conserve key species
Portuguese Secretrary for the Environment, Dr. Humberto Rosa gave a pre-recorded statement to the conference. View video below.

The Shark Alliance is calling on the Portuguese government - in its current role of President of the European Union (EU) - to use its influence to promote swift development of a sound EU Plan of Action for shark conservation, and thereby improve the outlook for these valuable yet vulnerable species.  Shark Alliance members, government representatives, and special guests are discussing opportunities for Portugal to lead the way toward responsible shark fisheries at a conference entitled Sharks at Risk: Building an EU Conservation Plan, in Lisbon today. 

The Shark Alliance, a coalition of over thirty conservation and scientific organisations (1), is working with Portuguese environmental organisations GEOTA, LPN, Quercus and representatives from the European Elasmobranch Association (2) with an aim to restore and conserve shark populations by improving European fishing policy.

Specifically, the Shark Alliance is asking the Portuguese government to ensure that the EU Plan of Action fosters greater coordination between fisheries and environment agencies, and includes concrete commitments to: 

  • Rebuild depleted shark, skate and ray populations
  • Restrict catch and bycatch of sharks, skates and rays 
  • End the wasteful practice of shark finning 
  • Protect critical shark habitat
  • Promote international shark conservation initiatives through fisheries bodies and wildlife treaties (3) 

Speaking about the pivotal role Portugal can play in development of a shark plan (4), Sonja Fordham, Policy Director for the Shark Alliance, said:

“With its rich fishing history and interest in sustainability, Portugal is well poised to bring the EU into a new era of responsible shark fishing, recovery of depleted species, and international leadership in global shark conservation.  Nearly ten years ago, Portugal hosted the World Expo and turned the world’s attention to conservation of the oceans.  The EU Presidency and developing the shark plan offer another exceptional opportunity for Portugal to lead on an issue of utmost importance to ocean health.” (View video below)

In a recorded statement prepared for today’s event, the Portuguese Secretary of State for the Environment, Dr. Humberto Rosa, remarked, “Shark conservation and marine biodiversity issues in general are very relevant for Portugal.  We are a fishing country, we are a fish-eating country.  That means that we want to keep fishing, we want to keep eating fish.  That means that we need sustainability in fisheries.”

Today’s event – where Dr. Rosa and Ms. Fordham, as well as several other speakers, will address the audience - is hosted by the Luso-American Development Foundation (5).  Later in September, Portugal will welcome delegates from around the world at the annual meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), the first regional fisheries body to set an international quota for a skate (6).  

Notes to editors:

1) The Shark Alliance is a not-for-profit coalition of non-governmental organizations dedicated to restoring and conserving shark populations by improving European fishing policy.  Because of the influence of Europe in global fisheries and the importance of sharks in ocean ecosystems, these efforts have the potential to enhance the health of the marine environment in Europe and around the world.  

The mission of the Shark Alliance is two-fold: 

  • To close loopholes in European policy regarding the wasteful and unsustainable practice of shark finning;
  • To secure responsible, science-based shark fishing limits for long-term sustainability and ecosystem health.

2) GEOTA - for further information, see www.geota.pt
LPN - for further information, see http://www.lpn.pt/
Quercus - for further information, see http://www.quercus.pt/
APECE – for further information, see www.apece.pt/home.htm

3) Shark Conservation Facts

Most sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from depletion because they generally grow slowly, mature late and produce few young. 

Most European shark fisheries have declined along with their target populations.  Still, shark catches by EU vessels remain largely unregulated at a time when demand for shark meat and fins is rising. 

One third of European shark, skate and ray populations assessed now qualify for the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List of Threatened Species (as Vulnerable Endangered or Critically Endangered), with another 20 per cent considered at risk of becoming so in the near future.

Demand for shark fins, used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, often leads to “finning” – the wasteful practice of slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the carcass in the sea.   The EU has banned finning for all its vessels, no matter where they fish, but serious loopholes in the regulation prevent its effectiveness.

The EU uses a fin to body weight ratio to ensure that fishing vessels are landing all the shark carcasses from which the fins have been removed (and not simply dumping them overboard).  The EU ratio is one of the world’s largest (and therefore most lenient).  This and other loopholes, such as allowing shark bodies and fins to be landed separately, undermine the finning ban.  Moreover, scientists warn of problems with the use of ratios for this purpose and overwhelmingly recommend that sharks be landed with their fins attached.  This enforcement method is by far the most effective means of preventing finning and also facilitates the collection of species-specific, shark catch data which is sorely needed for population assessment.

In 1999, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) adopted an International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-Sharks).  The IPOA-Sharks called on fishing nations to develop national plans of action for “sharks” (defined to include all cartilaginous fish: sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras) and work together to agree regional plans of action for sharks.  Eight years later, the EU has yet to develop a Plan of Action; this lack of action is taking a toll on sharks that could take decades or even centuries to repair.

4) What Portugal can do to help sharks:

As the third largest shark fishing nation in Europe with the second largest fishing fleet, Portugal has a responsibility to ensure proper fisheries management and conservation programmes for sharks. The Shark Alliance is urging Portugal to: 

Press the European Commission to promptly develop the overdue EU Shark Plan of Action, and thereby help to ensure that sharks receive the attention required for effective conservation and sustainable fisheries.

Set an example for other EU Member States by ending exceptions to the EU ban on the on-board removal of shark fins through special fishing permits.

Promote European Commission  proposals for science-based, precautionary limits on shark fishing at EU level and through international fisheries bodies.

5) The Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD) is a private, financially independent Portuguese institution.   Its main goal is to contribute towards Portugal's development by providing financial and strategic support for innovative projects by fostering cooperation between Portuguese and American civil society.  For further information, see http://www.flad.pt/

6) In September, Portugal will also be hosting delegates from around the world at the annual meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). Delegates are expected to discuss reducing the quota for thorny skate, a threatened species.   NAFO is the only regional fisheries body in the world to set a catch limit for a shark, skate or ray.  Still, the skate quota, established in 2004, was set well above the scientific advice and the depleted population has yet to show signs of recovery.  Shark Alliance member groups are urging the US, the EU and Canada to work together to lower the skate quota to a level that reduces extinction risk and allows for rebuilding.