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Brussels, 5 February 2009

Questions and answers – shark action plan

Why is the Commission launching an Action Plan for Sharks?

Shark fisheries have been growing rapidly since the mid-1980s, mainly driven by rapidly expanding demand from Asian markets. Between 1984 and 2004, world catches of sharks grew from 600,000 to over 810,000 metric tons. The EU fleet now take around 100,000 tonnes of sharks and related species each year.

These fisheries are only lightly regulated, if at all. Yet these species are among the most vulnerable to over fishing, due to their biological characteristics, which mean they have a very slow recovery rate once depleted. It therefore seemed timely to present a coherent and systematic approach, to ensure both stronger regulation of these fisheries, and better scientific understanding of their impact on fish stocks and ecosystems.

Where are sharks fished in EU waters?

Sharks and rays are fished in EU waters in the North Sea and the North East Atlantic, as well as in Norwegian and Faroes waters under bilateral agreements. They are also caught in deeper water fisheries in the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) area. Taken together, these catches make up more than half the total shark catches by the EU fleet. Stricter and more precautionary regulation of shark fishing in these waters will therefore have a significant effect on the EU fleet's impact on these vulnerable stocks.

While there are some targeted fisheries – e.g. for porbeagle (L. nasus) using longline and tangle nets in the Celtic Sea– many fish are caught as part of mixed demersal fisheries, making the problem of reducing fishing mortality much harder. Fleets from France, UK, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Belgium fish for shallow-water skates and rays, while UK and German operators are involved in fishing on deep water sharks, and vessels from Italy, Greece, Spain, and France catch small sharks, skates and rays in the Mediterranean. Altogether, EU vessels catch around 56,000 tonnes of elasmobranchs in these waters. Catches of large pelagic sharks do occur, but remain relatively low[1].

Where do EU operators fish for sharks outside EU waters?

EU vessels catching sharks are active throughout the world.

In the Central Atlantic they are involved in the pelagic shark fisheries managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Here, sharks are taken mainly as bycatch in the surface longline fisheries for tuna and swordfish, where the shark catch rate can run as high as 68% of the total catch. EU vessels catch around 31,000 tonnes of sharks per year in this region, mostly consisting of blue shark (Prionace glauca) and shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus), with blue shark alone representing 75% of all shark catches. In addition to tuna fisheries in this part of the Atlantic, there are several coastal fisheries in waters under jurisdiction of third countries where EU vessels are active. Reported catches are relatively modest, amounting to approximately 2,300 tonnes per year over the last five years.

In the Indian Ocean, the two main groups of species found in EU catches are swordfish (45%, or around 7,000 tonnes per year) and sharks (40%, or around 6,100 tonnes per year). The shark component is dominated by blue shark (Prionace glauca), which represents up to 88% of total shark catches. The other species of importance is the shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus), making up approximately 9% of total shark catches.

Tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean are managed by two RFMOs: the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in the Eastern part, and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in the Central and Western parts. While the EU is a member of the WCPFC, it has only observer status in the IATTC. From 2001 to 2005, shark landings by EU vessels in these areas increased steadily from about 400 tonnes to 6,100 tonnes. The fishery has been expanding westwards since 2004. As in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, blue shark (Prionace glauca) and shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) are the most prevalent pelagic sharks in the catches and landings of surface longliners operating in the Pacific ocean.

Is there a large market for shark products in the EU?

In Europe, commercial consumption of shark meat gained widespread acceptance with the advent of commercial refrigeration in the 1950s. The most expensive shark meat is spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). Other species that produce valuable meat are shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus), the common thresher (Alopias vulpinus) and the porbeagle (Lamna nasus). These and other shark, ray and skate species are used for human consumption in Europe and are favoured as food in France, Spain, Italy, the UK and Germany. Fins are exported to the Asian markets.

The primary non-food markets for shark products are liver oil and cartilage, although neither market now appears capable of supporting a fishery on its own.

How is shark fishing regulated at the moment in EU waters?

Catch limits are set for certain species as part of the TACs and quotas set by the EU for EU waters, and in the case of deep sea species, for international waters in the NEAFC area. In particular, the EU has adopted catch limits for spurdog and porbeagle throughout EU waters, and for many skates and rays. The EU has also committed itself to reducing the TAC for deep-sea sharks to zero by 2010.

The practice of shark finning is illegal in EU waters, and for EU vessels wherever they may fish, having been banned by Council Regulation (EC) No1185/2003. "Finning" is the practice of removing the fins from sharks with the remainder of the shark being discarded at sea. Under the EU regulation, it is legal to remove the fins from sharks which have been caught while still at sea, but the carcasses must be retained onboard. The weight of the fins is therefore not allowed to exceed the theoretical weight of the fins that would correspond to the remaining parts of sharks retained on board, transhipped or landed. For the purpose of enforcing this obligation, the Regulation provides that in no case shall the theoretical weight of the fins exceed 5 % of the live weight of the shark catch.

Strengthening control of the shark finning ban is a key proposal of the new Action Plan.

What specific actions is the Commission proposing to ensure that directed shark fisheries are sustainable, and that by-catch of sharks is properly regulated?

The Action Plan lists a number of specific measures to make EU and international shark fisheries sustainable.

At EU level:

  • Limitation or prohibition of fishing activities in areas that are considered sensitive for endangered stocks.
  • Stronger limitation of fishing effort by relevant fisheries.

Through collaboration between the EU and relevant RFMOs:

  • Establish catch limits for stocks in conformity with the advice provided by ICES and by the relevant RFMOs.
  • Prohibit all shark discards in the medium to long term and require that all catches (including by-catches) are landed. Unwanted by-catches of sharks that have a chance to survive must be released back into the water.
  • Increase selectivity (fishing gear) in order to reduce unwanted by-catch.
  • Establish space-time boxes in areas where juveniles or spawners are abundant, especially for vulnerable or threatened species.
  • Promote programmes and analysis to adjust fishing effort at international level.
  • Establish by-catch reduction programmes for shark species considered Critically Endangered or Endangered by relevant international organisations.
  • Provide international cooperation in the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) with a view to controlling shark fishing and trading.
  • Examine the possible impact of market mechanisms on conservation measures, including for shark species within the framework of the ongoing evaluation of the Common Market Organisation in fishery and aquaculture products.

What does the Commission propose doing to put an end to shark finning?

The Action Plan contains a number of measures to strengthen control of the EU ban on shark finning, and to see that this ban becomes the norm throughout the world. In particular, the Commission proposes to:

  • Confirm the ban of finning practices. As a general rule, it will be prohibited to remove shark fins on board and to tranship or land shark fins. Any exception to this rule will have to be fully justified on solid and objective grounds and documented prior to the issuing by the Member State of the special permit. Member States should not issue special permits to vessels that do not meet this condition.
  • Consider a possible review of the 5% rule by requiring that in no case shall the weight of the fins exceed 5% of the dressed (gutted and beheaded) carcass weight of the shark catch. However, Member States that have set up and implemented data collection programmes that show that this percentage could be increased in certain cases, could do so up to a percentage corresponding to 5% of the live weight of the shark catch.
  • For vessels of Member States that have been exempt from the obligation of landing sharks with fins attached, to introduce the requirement to land shark fins and carcasses at the same time in the same port.

How does the Commission propose strengthening scientific understanding of shark populations and shark fisheries?

The Action Plan contains a number of measures designed to improve our knowledge of shark stocks and shark fisheries, as a basis for better targeted regulations. In particular, the Commission proposes a number of actions at both EU and RFMO level:

at EU level:

  • Increase investment in shark data collection at landing sites and by processing and marketing industries.
  • Establish systems to provide verification of catch information by species and by fishery.
  • Mandate representative coverage on EC fishing vessels by on-board observers for vessels over 24 m and with recent by-catches figures of more than 10% to 15% (depending on the particular fishery) of sharks in the total catch.
  • For all distant-water fleets not covered by the above measure but which take sharks as a by-catch, mandate at least 10% observer coverage by 2013.
  • For high-priority shallow-water fisheries in the NE Atlantic, mandate pilot-based observer scheme (e.g. 25 observers or so) by 2013.
  • Ensure that all landings and trading of shark fins, meat and oil are recorded separately by commodity and where possible at species level, in the main fisheries and for the main species.

at RFMO level:

  • Promote improved species-specific catch and landings data and monitoring of shark catches by fishery.
  • Improve, in cooperation with FAO and relevant fisheries management bodies, the monitoring and reporting of catch, bycatch, discards, market and international trade data, at the species level where possible.
  • Request through the FAO and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations where appropriate that these organisations develop and implement Regional Shark Plans and associated measures to assist in species identification and monitoring, as called for in the IPOA–Sharks, by mid-2009 in order to report to the 15th Meeting of the CITES Conference of Parties.
  • Promote on-board observer coverage in line with that proposed for EU waters and the EU fleet.

What happens next?

The Communication and the Plan of Action will now be sent to both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. In parallel, the Commission will also discuss their contents with the Member States. We hope that it will be possible for the Council to issue conclusions on the Plan of Action during the first half of 2009. The Commission will then start to prepare the legislative proposals to translate the actions it has outlined into concrete measures. This procedure is necessary to establish a global vision of the subject shared by the EU institutions and the Member States, and to identify an order of priority for action. However, it does not prevent the Commission from continuing in the meantime to propose specific measures to strengthen the protection of sharks, both within the EU and in international fora.

More information:


link to webpage:

[1] The mixed nature of most of the fisheries from which elasmobranch catches are made, mean that it is very difficult to say with any certainty how dependent individual fishermen/vessels are on catches of these species or how much value-added is made specifically from elasmobranch catches, because no fleet segments rely exclusively on elasmobranch catches apart from very spatially and temporally limited directed fisheries on rays or porbeagle

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