European Shark Threat

It is five in the morning and the crew of the long liner boat moored alongside the fish market were hard at work unloading. What the crane was pulling out from the hold was a seemingly never-ending stream of dead sharks.

We were in Vigo in Northern Spain, and by the time that morning's boats had all unloaded, we estimated that between three and four thousand sharks were laid out in huge piles on the floor. There were Mako, Thresher and Porbeagles, but the great majority were Blue sharks, and of those we reckoned around 80% were juveniles, yet to breed.
The demand for shark fin has skyrocketed in recent years, as more and more Chinese are able to afford this prestigious soup, and the fin price has soared to reflect this. As shark populations have rapidly declined in the East, so attention has turned to European waters. The latest figures now show that 27% of fins imported to Hong Kong, the centre of the fin trade, now come from Europe. And that is what took us to Vigo.

The Shark Trust have been working to get protection for sharks and, together with Wild Aid, to outlaw finning, the cruel practice of slicing the fins off live sharks. On June 25th they are making a direct appeal to the E.U. Commissioner for the Enviroment to have finning banned in european waters and by european vessels abroad. This is vital to set a precedent for an urgently needed worldwide ban but will not control the unregulated fishing of Atlantic sharks.

At least a hundred million sharks are killed around the world each year, and the demand is rising. Sharks have a mammal like reproduction cycle; late sexual maturity, a long gestation period and give birth to few young. This means that sharks have no natural capacity to withstand high levels of exploitation. The magnificant whale shark, hunted for its enormous fins, which can fetch up to 15,000 for a single fin has already virtually disappeared from many parts of the world.
Long lining, where up to 80 kms of line carrying thousands of baited hooks is deployed, has been used for years to catch swordfish. It is an indiscriminate technique, with a regular bycatch of dolphins, turtles and albatrosses.

Vigo showed us how that situation has altered. With the increasing rarity of swordfish, and the rising price of shark fin, the target species has changed. Any swordfish caught today is individually bagged, and the holds are now full of sharks.

There is a huge amount we have yet to discover about Blue sharks in the Atlantic and so it is hard to predict how quickly this exploitation could trigger a rapid population decline. We did get a chilling clue from last year's annual three day shark fishing competition in Cornwall - the total catch for the whole competition was the grand total of zero.

John Nightingale