SHARKS swimming in European waters could soon be protected by strict new laws aimed at saving them being wiped out amid a growing appetite for their meat.
The European Commission (EC) today unveiled a set of proposals it hopes will end shark overfishing as well as tighten regulations for fishermen and improve the scientific data collected on various species.
The EC is also keen to strengthen its existing ban on shark finning – a practice where fishermen hack off a shark’s highly prized fins and then throw their carcasses back into the sea.
The measures have been drawn up as demand for shark meat in European restaurants and for shark fins in Asia continues to grow.
European fisheries commissioner Joe Borg said sharks were vulnerable to over-exploitation and warned there would be serious consequences for other marine life – and fishermen – if their numbers continued to drop.
“Many people associate sharks with going to the cinema, more than with beaches or restaurants,” he said.
“But the latest information we have confirms that human beings are now a far bigger threat to sharks than sharks ever were to us.
The amount of shark caught worldwide grew to more than 810,000 tonnes in 2004 from 600,000 tonnes two decades earlier.
Fishermen from the European Union’s 27 member nations now catch about 100,000 tonnes of shark annually.
A recent study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that up to one third of sharks caught in in EU waters were threatened by excessive fishing.
Conservationists fear that many species could face extinction given sharks are vulnerable to overfishing because they are slow to reach sexual maturity, have long gestation periods and a low fertility rate.
Shark has begun to feature more and more on European restaurant menus – including at Britain’s popular fish and chip shops – partly because it is less expensive than other fish.
Shark fin soup is considered a symbol of privilege and wealth in Asia, where diners are willing to pay more than $150 a bowl.
The popularity of the soup has driven up the price of shark fins, with many fishermen catching sharks, hacking off their valuable fins and then dumping the shark’s carcass back into the ocean.
While finning was banned six years ago, the EC wants to plug loopholes in the existing laws and introduce tougher monitoring of shark catches.
The plans have received a mix response from conservationists.
The Shark Alliance’s policy director Sonja Fordham described them as a “great step forward” for shark conservation.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said it broadly welcomed the plans, but called for the introduction of mandatory recording of shark catches given one third of Europe’s shark species are already threatened with extinction.
“Although we fully support the adoption and speedy implementation of the plan, we believe it contains major gaps that do not take a sufficiently precautionary approach to shark conservation, as recommended by the United Nations and others,” WWF international species program director Susan Lieberman said.
The European Parliament will now consider the EC’s proposals.