Shark ‘finning is the practice of cutting off a shark’s fins and discarding the rest of the carcass back into the sea.
The incentive to ‘fin’ sharks stems from the discrepancy in value between shark fins and meat. Finning results in the discard of roughly 95 percent of the targeted animal, which includes potential sources of protein and, as such, is widely acknowledged to be an irresponsible and wasteful practice. Since the early 1990s, finning has been banned by roughly 30 countries and the EU. Most international fisheries bodies banned finning in 2004 and 2005.
The EU finning ban was finalised in 2003 with Regulation (EC) 1185/2003, but loopholes undermine its effectiveness and set a poor standard for other countries and international policies. Indeed, the EU finning ban is among the most lenient in the world.
Specifically, whereas the Finning Regulation generally prohibits shark fin removal on-board fishing vessels, Article 4 allows for derogations through “special fishing permits” granted by Member States. Permitted fishermen can remove shark fins; a fin-to-carcass weight ratio limit is used to judge whether fins and bodies landed are in the appropriate proportion.
The EU fin to carcass ratio is set at 5 percent of the shark’s whole (theoretical) weight. This is impossible to measure accurately as the shark is no longer whole during such an inspection. In addition, this ratio is about twice as high as the weight ratio used in Canada and the US (which is 5 percent of a shark’s dressed weight i.e. after its head and guts are removed). According to the IUCN, fishermen could fin an estimated two to three sharks for each one landed and not exceed this high ratio limit. To make matters worse, permitted fishermen are allowed to land fins and carcasses at different times, in different ports. Special fishing permits were meant to be the exception and yet they have become the rule, with Spain and Portugal issuing them to most of their pelagic shark-fishing vessels.
Prohibiting at-sea removal of shark fins, and thereby requiring that all sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached, is the simplest, most reliable and cost-effective means of implementing a finning ban. This strategy also allows for improved, species-specific landings data, which are essential for assessing population assessment and fisheries management.
To facilitate efficient storage, fins can be partially cut and laid along the sharks’ bodies. The ‘fins naturally attached’ method has the support of the vast majority of conservationists, scientists and enforcement personnel.
In February 2009, as part of the EU Shark Action Plan, the European Commission pledged to strengthen the EU Finning Regulation. In April 2009, the EU Council of Fisheries Ministers endorsed the Shark Action Plan and encouraged the Commission to pay special attention to and prioritise shark finning issues.
Progress since 2006
In late 2006 the European Parliament urged the European Commission to tighten the EU Finning Regulation. Options for amending the Regulation were laid out by the European Commission and debated by stakeholders in 2007 and 2008 as part of the public consultation on the EU Shark Action Plan.
Since 2007, the EU has supported annual Sustainable Fisheries Resolutions from the United Nations General Assembly, encouraging States to consider requirements that all sharks be landed with fins naturally attached. In 2008, the IUCN World Conservation Congress adopted a global policy on finning that amounts to a call on States to ban at-sea removal of shark fins.
In September 2010, four Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), with the support of European Shark Week, launched a Written Declaration calling on the European Commission to deliver a proposal to prohibit the removal of shark fins on-board vessels. Signed by a majority of MEPs, the Written Declaration was endorsed as a Resolution of the Parliament in December 2010.
In November 2010, the European Commission initiated a public consultation on options for amending the EU Finning Regulation, including a ban on at-sea fin removal. Comments were accepted through February 2011 and reflected strong support for the ‘fins naturally attached option from conservationists, scientists, divers, aquarists and concerned citizens.
The European Commission is expected to release its proposal for a revised EU Finning Regulation for consideration by the European Parliament and Council of Fisheries Ministers during the last few months of 2011. Growing momentum – internationally and within the EU – for a simpler and more reliable policy gives hope that the Commission will propose a complete ban on the removal of shark fins at sea, in line with European Shark Week position. The process for debate and possible amendment of this proposal will continue well into 2012. The final Finning Regulation is expected to be adopted in late 2012.
European Shark Week is calling on Fisheries Ministers and Members of the European Parliament to press for a complete ban on at-sea shark fin removal (all sharks landed must have their fins naturally attached), while stressing that this new rule should have no exceptions.