Asian markets are driving sharks to extinction — but European fishermen are selling them fins

Countries from the European Union (EU) play a major role as suppliers and traders in the global shark trade, which is driving many species towards extinction, according to a new report. EU member states were the source of 45% of shark-fin-related products imported to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan in 2020, with Spain being the top exporter for fin trade.

Sharks are currently declining very fast on a global scale. One way humans hunt them is by using a practice called shark finning – the process of slicing off a fin and discarding the rest of the body, usually by throwing it back into the ocean, which leads to a slow and painful demise.

Fins are specifically targeted as they are used to make a fin soup in Asia, which is considered to be a symbol of status. Fishermen sometimes even prefer to practice shark fining instead of selling whole sharks in the market as fins are much more valuable and they get their money’s worth with relatively little work.

Finning is having big implications on shark populations worldwide. About 100 million sharks are killed globally every year, with many species such as the scalloped hammerhead susceptible to extinction.

Population plunges don’t only affect sharks but also entire ecosystems, causing a ripple effect. For example, the decline of the smooth hammerhead causes their prey, rays, to increase. If there are more rays, they eat more scallops and clams, which provide valuable services for the entire ecosystem. Simply put, if you remove the top predators from the ecosystem, the entire ecosystem’s biodiversity is affected.

The role of EU countries

In a new report, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) analyzed almost two decades of customs data in three Asian trading hubs from 2003 to 2020. While the main market for fin-related products is in Asia, EU countries – especially Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Portugal – are big suppliers to this legal market.

“Small or large, coastal or high seas, shark species are disappearing, with the piecemeal management efforts to date failing to stop their decline,” report co-author and IFAW’s EU manager Barbara Slee said in a statement. “The EU, demonstrated by our report to be a key player in global shark markets, has an important responsibility.”

Over 188,000 tons of shark fin products were imported by Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from 2003 to 2020, with the EU responsible for almost a third. Spain was the top source of imports with over 51,000 tons shipped from 2003 to 2020, an annual average of 2,877 tons, according to the report. Portugal ranked second with 642 tons.

EU countries can’t carry out shark finning but the landing and sale of whole sharks are permitted, except for species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That’s why IFAW is now calling for all sharks to be listed under CITES, which would give them further protection.

Shark populations have been shown to recover when effective management is put in place, hence the importance of the CITES listing. If the EU would take a leadership role to ensure the accuracy of trade records and the enactment of sustainability requirements of sharks in trade, then other players would follow through, Barbara Slee added.

“Global shark declines are driven by international demand for shark fins and meat,” report co-author Stan Shea said in a statement. Although many place the burden of change on the consumptive countries, primarily in Asia, equally responsible for declines in shark populations are all countries with internationally operating fishing fleets.”

The full report can be accessed here.

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