Great white shark
Credit: Claudio Contreras
Dangerous Waters - Even for Sharks
By Francesca Colombo
In 15 years the shark population in European waters has plummeted 80 percent. Some 100 million of these fish die each year, victims of the lucrative global market for their fins.
MILAN, Mar 5 (Tierramérica).- Despite the widespread reputation that associates sharks with death, this fish species is very vulnerable, and some varieties are at risk of extinction. Of the 40 shark species found in European seas, one-third are threatened by intensive and illegal fishing, sport fishing and accidental capture, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The last 15 years have seen an 80-percent drop in the shark population, and 20 percent of the European species are on the verge of critical status for survival, say environmental groups in the region.
"European sharks face serious threats. Over-fishing, illegal hunting and the removal of their fins are the causes of this decline," Sonja Fordham, policy director for Shark Alliance, a network of non-governmental organizations, told Tierramérica.
The International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) recommends against catching the melga (Squalus acanthias) and cailon (Lamma nasus) species, which swim in the northeast Atlantic and whose populations are the hardest hit. The European Union proposed including them in the Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).
"The problem is a combination of the biology of these species and unregulated fishing. There are no quotas, no limits, no controls. The pressure of fishing on sharks is so strong that their populations can't recover. More sharks are caught than are born," biologist Rebeca Greenberg, of the ocean research and conservation group Oceana, told Tierramérica.
Fishing operations catch these and other shark species to cut off their fins. They throw the bodies back into the sea. The fins are sold at top price in Asian markets, while demand groups at an annual rate of five percent.
In China, for example, there are some 380 million consumers of the famous shark fin soup. In Hong Kong, the fins sell at 131 dollars per kilogram. In South Korea and Thailand, the soup costs 150 to 200 dollars.
The fin market results in the killing of 100 million sharks each year. Ninety percent of the cut fins come from blue sharks (Prionace glauca), whose population dropped 60 percent in Europe's Atlantic coast.
In 2004 the EU exported more than 40,000 tons of shark meat -- 40 percent of the world total. Spain, which has Europe's largest fishing fleet, annually exports to Asia between two and three tons of shark fins, the equivalent of one million sharks.
Italy is the European leader in shark fishing, with 1,061 tons caught in 2004. Next come Turkey, with 1,018 tons, and Greece with 911 tons a year.
"If they are just cutting off the fins, they are wasting the rest. Shark products can be used to make teeth, necklaces, cosmetics, oils and vitamins," said Greenberg.
Accidental capture is also a threat to shark survival, causing the death of 100,000 sharks each year in the Mediterranean.
"It's a problem for sharks around the world. They are at risk of extinction from accidental capture. Generally, they end up trapped in the nets intended for swordfish. There isn't much information available about this phenomenon," says Marco Costantino, of the Italian office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Shark meat is sold as if it were "fine fish" and ends up on European dinner plates. Sport fishing is another threat, affecting shark species, like the mako (Isurus oxyrinchus).
The destruction of their habitat, their slow sexual maturation -- the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) reaches maturity at nine years, and the sandbar (Carcharhinus plumbbeus) at 25 -- and their low reproduction rate also put them at risk.
Most shark species reproduce one to five times during adulthood. Their gestational period can be nine to 12 months.
Sharks are carnivores and hunters. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, over-exploitation produces changes in the genetic structure of some species, speeding up their growth phase, reproductive cycles, and reducing their natural size.
Sharks date back to before the dinosaurs. They appeared in the oceans some 400 million years ago. They can be quite small, like the pygmy shark (Squaliolus laticaudus), measuring 25 cm long, or enormous, like the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), reaching 18 meters.
Annually there are an average 100 shark attacks against humans, 30 lethal. But just four of the 300 known species are involved in attacks: bull 888 tiger, oceanic and white.
"We must change people's idea of sharks. They have the same bad image as wolves. Years ago it was thought that wolves killed and were a danger to humans. But it proved false. In the Mediterranean, the possibility of a shark attack is almost nonexistent," marine biologist Simona Cló, of the Center for Environment and Protection of Marine Species, told Tierramérica.
* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor.