A petition with 1.1 million signatures, demanding a ban on the trade in shark finning, has been handed to the European Commission. The petition was organised by the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) and obliges the Commission to respond to the petitioners. The UK, which has a strong track record in marine conservation, has been pressing for more robust international action to protect sharks from unsustainable practices like finning, which involves the removal of a shark’s fins at sea before releasing the mutilated and fatally injured shark back into the water to die a painful death. While shark finning has been prohibited for decades in the EU and UK, there is evidence of a growing market in shark fin exports. Fishers claim the fins are being removed legitimately from dead sharks that have been sustainably fished and landed intact. Since 2013, the EU requires all sharks to be brought to port with their fins naturally attached. But there is suspicion that illegal finning is still taking place to supply the demand in what is a lucrative market. Shark fins are exported primarily to the Far East and in particular to China and Hong Kong.

Near the heart of Hong Kong's luxury shopping district are a cluster of streets that specialise in traditional Chinese banquet and health foods. ‘Dried Seafood Street’ and ‘Tonic Food Street’ are festooned with shop windows full of golden, dried shark and ray fins stripped of skin and bones, arranged by size and shape. Ones that are no bigger than a fist can cost a few hundred dollars per kilo. The biggest ones, like hammerhead fins, are worth thousands of dollars each and are displayed as trophies, locked in glass cases. Many of the fins come from Europe. The demand for shark products has led to significant overfishing, with wild populations of sharks, skates and rays suffering a massive decline and species such as the hammerhead shark and angelshark on the critically endangered list. 

For too long there has been a shadowy overlap between the legitimate and illegitimate trade in shark fins, which the European petitioners seek to resolve by calling for a complete ban on the trade. In its response to the petition the European Commission has promised to launch an impact assessment by the end of the year to measure the effectiveness of its existing rules against finning. They have also promised to enforce traceability measures for shark fins and enhance the EU’s role in the global fight against shark finning. It is all a case of too little, too late. 

In the UK, ‘The Shark Fins Act 2023’, passed into UK law at the end of June. As animal welfare legislation, which is not devolved, It will apply to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Act will tighten the law on the international shark fin trade by banning the import and export of shark fins or things containing shark fins, “unless the shark fins are naturally attached to the body of the shark, and the body is substantially intact, ignoring any removal of the head and internal organs”. The Act has been accepted by the Scottish government and will also apply to non-UK fishing vessels in UK waters and to UK vessels fishing in any maritime waters. It is an example the European Commission would do well to follow.

The EU introduced a deeply flawed law to outlaw shark-finning way back in 2003, but it was so full of loopholes the cruel practice of shark finning continued, with tens of millions of sharks killed annually to meet the demand in Asia, the world’s biggest consumer of shark fins. Hammerhead shark fins are among the most sought after, although fins from blue and mako sharks are important in the trade, if not always the best quality. The fins of spurdog and other dogfish species are generally low quality, but they have been part of the international fin trade for decades and make up a substantial proportion of the exports to Asia from Europe. 

The over-exploitation of sharks in UK and European waters has reached crisis point. Some species, like the spurdog, now face extinction unless urgent action is taken to provide them with protection. Commonly found in the Irish Sea and Northeast Atlantic, they often hunt in groups, which makes them an easier target for fisheries. It is difficult for these sharks to recover from overfishing, because they are very slow to reproduce, typically having 1 litter of pups every 2 years. Female spurdog sharks have one of the longest pregnancies of any vertebrate, lasting between 18-22 months.

The UK and Scottish governments are now leading the way on banning shark finning and the European Commission is playing catch-up only after receiving the 1.1 million signature petition from angry EU citizens. Declarations by European fishers that most of the revenue from those parts of the fleet that target sharks is from the meat and not the fins, is no longer convincing. Several critically endangered species like spurdog and porbeagle, are heavily targeted by Spain, France and the Netherlands, who sell the meat to Asia where it is used in shark fin soup. 

Sharks have been around for 400 million years. They were here long before the dinosaurs came and went and play a crucial role in our ocean ecosystem. But according to the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN), 143 species of shark, out of over 500, are now listed as ‘under threat’, due to unsustainable fishing, where they are caught accidentally as by-catch or targeted for their fins and meat. They have also become increasingly over-fished as a result of technological improvements in fishing and processing. Some are listed as ‘critically endangered,’ like the heavily overfished blue shark and shortfin mako. The UK and Scottish governments have set an excellent example by approving the Shark Fins Act. The EU needs to do likewise. A complete ban on the trade in shark fins is the only sensible way forward.