Growth in shark fin trade could lead to species extinction

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Shark fishing in Europe is helping to fuel a global trade in valuable shark fins that is driving many species to the brink of extinction, a study has found.

European regulations designed to protect sharks are all but useless and are failing to halt the growth of illegal finning - when shark fins are removed and the carcass is thrown overboard.

The Shark Alliance, a collection of international non-governmental organisations, said the EU's ban on finning is full of loopholes that are being exploited by some fishing nations.

There are even proposals from some countries, notably Spain, to relax the rules on shark finning still further, making it more likely that some species will be fished to extinction.

Sonja Fordham, author of the Shark Alliance report, said the European Parliament's Fisheries Committee is pushing for weaker restrictions on shark finning, which is growing because of the demand in Asia for shark fin soup.

The committee has voted this week to allow fishing vessels in Europe to land more shark fins - relative to carcass weight - than in the past which many see as a relaxation of the rules.

"With this week's vote, they have essentially recommended a policy for finning at least two out of every three sharks landed, thereby betraying the intent of the EU's ban on finning and the will of the public," Ms Fordham said.

Shark finning is driven by the disparity between the high-value fins, which can be sold to restaurants for many hundreds of dollars, and the rest of the carcass.

The United States and other countries have set a quota on fins based on a ratio of fin weight to the dressed weight of the carcasses landed on shore.

The measures were designed to stop the practice of slicing off fins at sea and discarding the rest of the body, which enables fishing vessels to slaughter large numbers of sharks on the open ocean. Europe adopted the same ratio but this time to whole weight of the carcass, which allowed more fins to be legally landed. The Fisheries Committee has now voted to increase the ratio even further - making finning at sea easier.

"The lucrative, global market for shark fin, used for the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, is estimated to be increasing by 5 per cent per year," says the Shark Alliance report. Over the past decade, European participation in the Hong Kong fin market, led by Spain, has grown from negligible levels to nearly a third of total declared imports, the report says.

Shark species that are important for the fin market include the hammerhead, blue, mako, basking and dogfish sharks. A third of European species are threatened.

"There are sharks in European waters and many of them are in serious decline and yet the EU is playing a role in the overall crisis," Ms Fordham said.

Shark finning in European waters has grown from negligible levels to about a quarter of global demand, and yet many of the species are too slow growing to be replaced. Spain leads the list in shark-finning nations, but Britain, France, Portugal and Italy also contribute to the trade, the report found.

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