LARGELY unknown to the world, Europe has been catching sharks by the millions, making it the major global supplier of shark as a food product. Europe now intends to reduce its shark catch, so there will be fewer shark fins for Asian consumption.
As a result of over-harvesting for decades, sharks are now severely depleted in the waters around Britain, Norway and Iceland. Europe now wants to stop catching sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1984 and 2004, the world's shark catch grew from 600,000 to more than 810,000 tonnes. The European Union (EU) catches 100,000 tonnes of sharks and shark-related species every year.
Sharks now need to be protected from overfishing by the EU. Last month, the EU announced a plan to ensure that EU fisheries 'for shark are sustainable and that their by-catches are properly regulated'.
The EU's plan is to curtail the killing of millions of sharks by member countries for their meat, for example, in serving up fish-and-chips. It will mean the end of 'rock salmon' or 'huss' being sold at fish-and-chip shops as they are derived from spiny dogfish, an increasingly rare shark species.
In Germany, shark meat is sold as 'See-Aal' (sea eel) and belly flaps are smoked to make 'Schillerlocken', a German delicacy. In France, fresh shark meat is sold as 'aiguillat commun' or 'saumonette d'aiguillat'. EU is the largest consumer of spiny dogfish meat, estimated to be 65 per cent of the world landings.
An EU press statement last February admits: 'In Europe, commercial consumption of shark meat gained widespread acceptance with the advent of commercial refrigeration in the 1950s. The most expensive shark meat is spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). Other species that produce valuable meat are shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus), the common thresher (Alopias vulpinus) and the porbeagle (Lamna nasus). These and other shark, ray and skate species are used for human consumption in Europe and are favoured as food in France, Spain, Italy, the UK and Germany.
'The main pelagic sharks caught by the European fleet are mako sharks, porbeagle sharks and blue sharks. These species and a few others add up to around 42,000 tonnes of EU catches.
'These sharks are generally by-catches in other pelagic fisheries, primarily surface longline fishing directed at tuna, swordfish and marlin, in all the world's oceans. Nonetheless, 88 per cent of the EU's pelagic shark catches are made by longliners operating in the Atlantic Ocean (68 per cent of shark by-catches). Fins, a by-product, are exported to the Asian markets.
'Fleets from France, UK, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Belgium fish for shallow-water skates and rays, while UK and German operators are involved in fishing on deep water sharks, and vessels from Italy, Greece, Spain, and France catch small sharks, skates and rays in the Mediterranean.'
Taken together, these catches make up more than half the total shark catches by the EU fleet. The rest is caught by EU vessels throughout the world.
Europe is not the only region where there is widespread catching and popular consumption of sharks. In Australia, 'flake' is a popular fish dish, but unknown to most, it is actually shark meat. A local campaign has been initiated to urge the prohibition of shark catching, and ban the sale and consumption of flake.
The world has been led to believe shark's fin soup is the driver of shark population decline. A usual 'anti-shark's fin' article typically asserts that 'the major contributor to shark population depletion is the demand for fins, mainly for shark's fin soup. It is estimated that nearly 100 million sharks are killed each year to fulfil this demand'.
'Shark populations plunge as a result of traditional Asian delicacy', proclaims the Canada National Post as recently as February 4 this year.
To quote Mr Melvin Foo, a veteran Singapore marine products trader: 'About 30 to 40 years back, much of the (European) fishing industry did not know the value of fins. Most of the boats would go out, fish and bring whatever they caught to the market - usually tuna, swordfish and reef fish. Shark meat was used as a source of cheap protein, or salted to be sold later. Their fins were usually discarded because no one knew the value of them then. In those days, Chinese merchants did not venture beyond the immediate region because the surrounding waters held an ample supply of sharks.'
There always was a huge demand for shark meat in Europe. For example, for fish and chips, dogfish is normally used - a small breed of shark that does not grow beyond 1m.
'Gradually', says Mr Foo, 'traders like us went around educating fishermen (in Europe) not to throw the fins away, but to give them to the wholesalers who would export them to us. What is wrong with sharks' fins being salvaged? These fins might get the fishermen enough money to send their children to school. Previously, they just threw them all away.'
The environmentalists' line that 'we are encouraging fishermen to target the sharks for their fins only and throw away the meat' is, according to Mr Foo, untrue. 'We have to understand how this industry started before we jump to conclusions,' he adds.
Popular media have been manipulated into believing that 100 million sharks are killed each year for only their fins. The EU's plan to curtail their multi-million shark catch is compelling proof of the true contributor for the decline in shark numbers.
Dr Giam Choo Hoo
The writer is a member of the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Animals Committee and a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, England.