Located at the top position in the marine ecosystems food chain, sharks play a crucial role in the global balance of the oceans. Sharks are the lions and tiger of the oceans and as an apex predator, the sharks act as regulators of the marine ecosystem by controlling the populations of other predatory species lower down the food chain.
The presence of healthy breeding populations of sharks ensure the future survival of many fish, corals and marine species which would otherwise be decimated by population explosions of the more numerous and faster breeding smaller predators.
But the shark’s lifecycle is their main vulnerability due to their slow maturation, small number of offspring, and long reproductive cycles (that can reach up to 22 months).
Due to reductions in prey caused by humans overfishing, marine pollution, habitat destruction and the barbaric shark fin trade our shark populations are vanishing at such a rate that they cannot breed to maintain their numbers in any sustainable level. Between 60 and 90 million sharks are killed by humans each year. This is a mass-extinction event entirely of mankind’s creation. Many more consequences of these factors are still unknown but this severe depletion or possible extinction of such a vital predator as the shark which has been patrolling the oceans for over 400 million years will definitely cause irreversible damage to global marine ecosystems.
In the European Union, Spain is the top leader in the shark fishery industry and with one of the largest and most destructive world fishing fleets. The Spanish fleet accounts for around 50% of all sharks killed by EU registered vessels. As sharks are not a recognised target by the longline Spanish fishery, incidental captures have always lacked of any regulation and sharks have never been recognized as a commercial exploited species by the Spanish fleet. Coinciding with the resurgence of the Chinese middle class and sharp rise in shark fin soup consumption, nets used to catch the endangered bluefin tuna are today being used to catch any shark species. With almost no concern about the species status or sustainability, no regulations or fixed quotas (even exceeding the targeted species volume) and contrary to any protection and conservation measure, Spain is responsible for destroying many shark species and driving the global extermination of this ancient and vital marine creature.
Spain is also the major European shark fin exporter to Asia and in order to maximize their cruel profits from shark fin sale many vessels of the Spanish fleet engages in the brutal ‘shark finning’ practice. This consists of the amputation of all the shark’s fins, alive or dead, and then throwing the rest of the shark back into the sea. These Sharks, unable to swim then sink to the bottom where they die cruelly either by bleeding to death, slowly suffocating due to their inability to move or be eaten alive by other predators with no way to escape. This practice was condemned and banned in 2002 under a European Union Regulation but the many deficiencies of the regulation and associated loopholes makes it one of the worlds most ineffective marine fisheries regulations. As a consequence of this, Spain maintains a leading position in the granting of international fishing shark licenses. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one third of all sharks’ species in European waters are now considered endangered. Finning of pelagic species in the North Atlantic such as Tiger, Shortfin (Mako), Thresher, Porbeagle shark and the Sawfish has driven a rapid decline between 50 and 70% and even up to 99.8% in Smooth and Scalloped Hammerhead shark species in Mediterranean waters.
Vigo (in La Coruña) together with Las Palmas (in Gran Canaria) are the major fishing harbours in Europe and are the most significant landing ports for the landing of shark fins and shark meat. Shark fins are sent to the Asiatic market, usually via Hong Kong (which handles 80% of the world’s trade in fins), whereas shark meat which is near worthless in comparison to the fins is distributed within Europe and large quantities to Spanish retailers. To maximise their profits the Spanish fisheries market abuses the consumer with incorrect product labelling so that shark meat can be passed as Emperor fish (Snapper fish) or Swordfish among many others because the similar tastes and textures can be easily confused by consumers. This deceit, deliberate or not, has caused the unintentional/unknowing consumption of shark by 96 per cent of the Spanish population. Sharks, as an apex predator with a long lifespan are especially prone to bioaccumulation of toxins from their polluted habitat and contaminated prey. The sharks are one of the most hazardous sources of human exposure to Mercury (in the form of methylmercury) which because of its neurotoxin characteristics affects foetus nervous systems as well as immunological, renal and cardiovascular systems. Mercury, in the form of methylmercury is evenly distributed in body tissues of fish and thus one finds about the same concentrations in muscle, neural tissue and cartilage. Average size sharks demonstrate mercury concentrations from roughly 0.5 to 2.0 ppm (parts per million) and the mercury concentration in large sharks can reach 5 ppm. Most agree the threshold for mercury in seafood, above which fish consumption becomes hazardous, begins at about 0.1 ppm for pregnant mothers and small children.
Besides the consumption of shark fin soup that is one of the main reasons of the depletion of sharks species, there are disturbing signs of a new market opening up for lower-quality fins, allowing millions more people to buy shark products such as shark fin sushi, shark fin cookies, shark fin cat food and canned shark fin soup. Whale sharks, the world’s largest shark are killed in startling numbers for their large and hugely profitable fins. The Whale shark fin makes an ‘exciting’ display in the restaurant window to draw customers to eat the shark-fin soup from other equally threatened and endangered shark species.
Song: “MELO RESCUE” Music and Video by Aqualise (Nicolas Bulostin).
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Simultaneously there are other significant markets for shark products. Their skin is used for the manufacture and decoration of luxury designer products such as bags, shoes, belts, watch straps, their teeth as jewellery and their jaws as ornaments. Sharks are also used in many ‘traditional’ medicinal remedies and as vitamin or mineral ‘health’ supplements – none of which have any proven scientific or medical evidence backing their beneficial health claims and many of these products may well be hazardous to human health.
We must stop this ecological crime which is supported by the deliberate negligence of the Spanish government that is causing this unprecedented collapse of shark populations. The continued obstruction of shark conservation and protection plans, the condoning of contaminated shark meat consumption as well as the cruel shark fin industry controlled by corrupt profiteering organisations and powerful mafias must stop in our generation or the sharks may never recover.
If we don’t stop this ecological ignorance, then very soon, maybe in just a few decades, we will lose our sharks. A perfectly evolved creature that has survived over 400 million years, from long before the time of the dinosaurs and which has survived every known mass-extinction event in our planets history is today, because of human greed and adaptability to depletion of resources is on the brink of extinction.
Campaign for the Sharks
Ocean Sentry (More information)
Un negocio escurridizo, Oceana, <http://www.oceana.org/sp/europa/publicaciones/informes/un-negocio-escurridizo/>, Jun. 2008
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From Head to Tail: How European nations commercialise shark products, Oceana, <http://europe.oceana.org/index.php?id=2847&L=0>, Nov. 2008
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Shark alliance, <http://www.sharkalliance.org>, (Visited 2009)
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