Sharks have graced our ocean for hundreds of millions of years, and both fascinated and frightened humanity for millennia. Today, these animals are being hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial fisheries that kill up to a hundred million sharks every year.
Demand for their fins and meat is propelling a shocking decline in shark populations worldwide, with more than 50 percent of shark species now classed as either threatened or near threatened with extinction, and the numbers of pelagic sharks on the high seas plummeting by over 70 percent in the past 50 years alone. However, while many campaigns focus on markets in Asia where most shark products are sold, there is another major player in this maritime tragedy that has largely evaded the spotlight — the European Union.
A new report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) reveals that EU member countries were the source of over 45 percent of all shark fin-related products imported into three major trading centers — Hong Kong SAR, Singapore and Taiwan province — in 2020. Taking into account a 2021 study showing that the EU sources 22 percent of the total global supply of shark meat, this new study demonstrates that the EU provides much of the world’s shark fins as well. The report analyzes official customs data from 2003 to 2020 to provide the first comprehensive picture of the EU’s key role in the largely unmanaged global shark trade, which is driving population declines worldwide. The findings make uncomfortable reading for some countries in particular.
Spain tops the chart of exporters to the global fin trade by a wide margin, accounting for over a quarter of the 188,368 metric tons of shark fin products imported into Hong Kong SAR, Singapore and Taiwan province between 2003 and 2020. Other shark fin exporters include Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Italy. In addition, Italy, Spain and Greece are the EU’s primary importers of shark meat from the three major Asian trading centers. The study also found that, although global shark fin exports into these hubs are decreasing overall — a warning sign that wild shark populations are falling — the proportion imported from the EU is rising steadily, from 28 percent in 2017 to more than 45 percent in 2020. At this rate, the EU could soon be the majority source of shark fins for the world’s three largest trading hubs.
The results of the IFAW study should serve as a wake-up call for the EU to own up to the true scale of its contribution to global shark decline and step up action to address it. To achieve this, the EU needs to improve the monitoring and tracking of its own shark fishing and trade, and also advocate for sustainable trade limits through the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to shift global markets towards a brighter, more sustainable future for sharks.
The EU should champion the inclusion of all commercially-traded shark species in CITES Appendix II to ensure that international trade is kept to sustainable levels. This step is no longer precautionary, but necessary and urgent given the clear evidence of shark declines caused by unmanaged catch and trade. And there is plenty of room for improvement. Worldwide, governments have begun to recognize that CITES listings are an effective and enforceable way to prevent the global trade in shark products from driving shark declines. However, just 25 percent of the global shark trade is regulated via CITES, with many more shark species in trade at risk of extinction. Since 2002, 46 shark and ray species have been listed in Appendix II, including 18 at-risk species added at the last CITES meeting in 2019. Once a species is listed, international trade can only continue with the appropriate permits to ensure that trade levels are limited to sustainable levels. While the EU has been supportive of global efforts to implement existing CITES listings to date, this is not enough.
As a world leader in catching and trading sharks, the EU must also lead the way in accelerating global conservation action to prevent the collapse of shark populations. While more CITES listings will not magically solve the problem, when effective management is put in place, shark populations have been shown to recover.
CITES listings have already led to action at the international and national level to increase transparency and improve the management of shark species threatened by international trade. That’s why it’s important to expand CITES listing to the many other vulnerable shark species whose unmanaged trade is contributing to population declines, before they are all endangered with extinction. The next opportunity to add new species is the CITES conference in Panama in November 2022, but as this process can be complex and lengthy it must begin now.
By actively stepping into a leadership role in global shark conservation, the EU will set the tone for the global trade reforms needed to prevent shark extinctions and influence other players to follow suit. This is not only a clear responsibility, but also an opportunity for the EU to boost its capacity to understand, monitor and regulate its role in the global shark-related trade. The EU has the power to keep more sharks where they belong; alive and thriving in the sea.
Small or large, coastal or high seas, the indisputable fact is that shark species are disappearing, and the piecemeal management efforts to date are failing to halt their decline. For too long the burden of change has been placed on consumers in Asia; it’s high time that all countries with international fishing fleets and trade in shark products took on their fair share of the responsibility — starting with the EU.