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.
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.