EU wants more sharks in sea, fewer in soup pots

BRUSSELS — The EU wants more sharks in the sea and fewer in the soup pot.

The European Commission proposed its first-ever shark conservation rules today, trying to reverse the decline in sharks in European waters.

“Many people associate sharks with the cinema, more than with restaurants,” said EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg. “But the latest information we have confirms that human beings are now a far bigger threat to sharks than sharks ever were to us.”

Borg said sharks, because of their long life spans and low fertility rates, are vulnerable to overfishing. A recent study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggests as many as one-third of the 80 types of sharks caught in EU waters are now threatened by overfishing.

Borg proposed plugging loopholes in a 2003 ban on shark finning — the practice of hacking off shark fins and throwing the body back — and steps to reduce accidentally catching sharks while hunting other fish and to increase monitoring of shark catches.

The proposals still need to be drafted into law and approved by the EU’s 27 nations.

But the EU’s highly publicized move drew only lukewarm support from conservation groups, with the Madrid-based advocacy group Oceana calling it “vague” due to a lack of timelines and fishing limits.

Europe is a “major player” in the shark trade, with EU countries accounting for 56 percent of shark meat imports and 32 percent of exports globally, according to Julie Cator, Oceana’s policy director.

The group said shark steaks are increasingly served in restaurants, replacing pricier swordfish steaks, and shark products are also finding their way into lotions and leather sports shoes.

Restaurant menus disguise shark dishes with less scary names, including Rock Salmon in Britain, Chien de Mer in France and Cozon in Spain.

“Consumers need to be made aware that sharks are a species that need conserving,” Cator said.

Shark fishing in the EU is not illegal, but conservationists call it a “forgotten species” — one that escapes EU monitoring and fishing quotas that exist for hake, cod, plaice, whitefish, herring and fish.

In addition to sharks, the new EU proposal also covers related species as skates, rays and chimaeras in waters where EU fisherman operate.

Shark fishing has grown rapidly since the mid-1980s, driven by a rising demand in China for shark fin soup, a highly prized symbol of wealth.

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