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Joe Borg

Member of the European Commission

Responsible for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs

Speaking points

Press conference: EU Action plan on Sharks
Brussels, 5 February 2009.

Many people associate sharks with going to the cinema, more than with beaches or restaurants. But the latest information we have confirms that human beings are now a far bigger threat to sharks than sharks ever were to us. Between 1984 and 2004, world catches grew from 600,000 to over 810,000 metric tons. As a result, many shark species are now overfished, and some are being pushed to the verge of extinction.

This is not just a problem which is limited to tropical oceans, either. Sharks have become a significant fishery for the EU fleet, too. The current catch by EU vessels of sharks and related species now runs at around 100,000 tonnes each year. Of these, more than half are taken in the North Atlantic – including in the North Sea, and a sizeable number are also caught in the Mediterranean. According to figures from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as many as one third of the shark species found in EU waters are under threat due to overfishing.

This is bad news. Sharks and their close cousins, such as skates and rays, are more vulnerable to overfishing than many other fish, because their reproductive cycle is so long. Once stocks have collapsed it may take many decades for them to recover – if indeed they can recover at all.

That is why the European Commission has decided to adopt a plan of action that can help protect these vulnerable predators, and ensure that in so far as they are being fished, they are fished sustainably.

This means three things.

  • First, we have to adopt a precautionary approach to protecting the most vulnerable species. And therefore we must reduce catches, and we must do so now. The Council of Ministers have already adopted catch limits for spurdog and porbeagle throughout European 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 Commission hopes that the endorsement of the Action Plan by Council and Parliament will give new impetus to establishing broad-based protection for these species, and ensure that our actions in this respect are systematic and coherent.
  • Secondly, if we want to be sure that the measures we take are effective, we also need to know more about the complex biology and ecology of these species which are still not well known today. That is why the Action Plan places great emphasis on better catch reporting, more investment in data collection and analysis, and extensive observer programmes, to support the efforts of scientists working in this field. Sharks sit at or near the top of the marine food chain, and their disappearance from the ecosystem could have repercussions which go far beyond anything we can presently anticipate.
  • Finally, if we want to be coherent in our good intentions, we need to do our best to make sure that all shark fisheries are sustainable, not just those in which we ourselves are directly involved. That is why the Action Plan calls for real coherence between our internal EU policy on sharks, and the positions we take in international bodies, and in particular in Regional Fisheries Management Organisations. Proper measures to protect the most vulnerable species of sharks must be put in place, and must be properly controlled and enforced. We need to ensure that we contribute fully to this effort in international waters, just as we need to lead by example in the way we run our own fisheries.

That, in a nutshell, is our project. If we follow the approach set out in this plan, then the result will be better knowledge, and more rigorous conservation measures, to protect these creatures from the deep. And if we do that, then we will also be protecting the livelihoods of those fishers who catch them.

Thank you for your attention.

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