Shark fin soup places 'unsustainable and crippling demand' on populations

MEPs are set vote on closing loopholes in fishing legislation to tackle the controversial practice of shark finning. Gerald Callaghan reports

By Gerald Callaghan

12 Nov 2012

Shark fin soup dates back to the Ming dynasty and is considered in China as one of the eight treasured foods of the sea. The delicacy was coveted by emperors because it was rare and required elaborate preparation. Holding both culinary and symbolic significance, the dish is popular at important occasions symbolising wealth, power, prestige and honour.

With the sudden increase in prosperity in Asia, shark fin soup is being consumed in vast quantities, placing an unsustainable and crippling demand on shark populations. The shark fin industry has gained notoriety in recent years for its effects on the global shark population but this has been eclipsed by a practice known as finning. This involves catching a shark, removing its fins and dumping it back into the sea, often while the animal is still alive.

Hong Kong and China dominate the international shark fin market, with a 50 per cent share of all traded shark fins entering into this marketplace, and almost 80 per cent of the fins landed in Hong Kong are then shipped to the Chinese mainland for consumption.

Although an EU shark finning ban has been in place since 2003, the regulation still allows for justified exceptions, provided fins are removed on board, and all parts of the shark used, so as not to leave discarded sharks without fins dying in the sea. On 19 September, parliament's fisheries committee voted to delete these exceptions, and thus oblige vessels that land sharks to keep their fins attached until they are landed.

"We have a chance in the plenary session in Strasbourg to put things right and bring in an unequivocal ban" - Alyn Smith

Sharks have been around for 400 million years and take anything from seven to more than 20 years to reach maturity, meaning that it takes populations a long time to recover. The current demand for their fins makes it impossible for populations to return to previous levels. Also, sharks are top predators and when they are removed from the ocean the entire ecosystem suffers as a result.

Rapporteur for the 'fish stock conservation: removal of fins of sharks on board vessels' report Maria do Céu Patrão Neves argues that the scope of the exceptions should be narrowed, "by issuing special fishing permits allowing the removal of shark fins only to freezer fishing vessels".

"Moreover, several specific measures were proposed for strengthening the control of the prohibition of finning, including the obligation to trans-ship and land shark carcasses and fins together in the same port; the obligation for vessel owners to hire an independent body to carry out controls in the ports where local authorities are unable to; and the obligation of masters of freezer vessels to keep detailed records on their catches", said the Portuguese official.

Scottish MEP Alyn Smith welcomed the proposal, saying, "Europe's stance on this issue has been confused and contradictory and the legislation is complex. Next month, we have a chance in the plenary session in Strasbourg to put things right and bring in an unequivocal ban."

Smith told The Parliament Magazine, "I fully intend to support this and I’m sure my colleagues in the Green/EFA group at the European parliament, who are equally committed to action, will feel the same."

The draft resolution was approved with 24 votes in favour, one against and no abstentions. On 22 November, the European parliament meets in plenary to vote on the proposal to close the major loopholes in shark finning.

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