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One Step Closer to Stricter EU Shark Finning Ban

Today, members of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee convened in Brussels to vote on a strict ban on shark finning, a practice that is rapidly thinning out the world’s vulnerable shark populations.

Though shark finning has been illegal among EU Member States since 2003, the practice persists due to legislative loopholes that enable many fishermen to receive exemptions. Under current regulations, “special permits” are issued to fishermen who demonstrate a need for separate processing on-board, allowing them to remove shark fins at sea and land fins and bodies separately, a practice that is otherwise illegal.

Europe’s waters house up to 130 species of sharks, skates, and rays, of which one-third are classified as "Threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). An additional 20% of Europe’s sharks are at risk of becoming threatened in the near future.

Considering that the EU is the world’s largest fishing entity, accounting for up to 17% of shark catches in 2009, and is also the largest exporter to major markets in mainland China and Hong Kong, cutting off special permits among Member States will have a great impact on shark populations.

Given that cargo space is often limited and that the market value per kilogram of fins is significantly higher than flesh, there are strong incentives among fishermen to haul live sharks on-board, cut off their fins, then toss the carcass back to sea to bleed to death. In 2003, four EU Member States—Spain, France, the UK, and Portugal—fell within the Top 20 shark catching nations. Since then, the UK has stopped issuing special permits and France has never allowed on-board processing. Now only Spain and Portugal continue to issue special permits, and, to no surprise, both countries also strongly oppose today’s vote to eliminate on-board processing exemptions.

One of the major problems identified with the current permit system is that many on-board processing permits are based on insufficient justifications, making it easy for many vessels to obtain permits. Additionally, permits allow for separate landings of shark fins and processed bodies, making it impossible to determine if illegal shark finning has occurred; under a no exemption policy, all sharks caught will be landed with their fins still attached.

Recognizing the critical state of global shark populations, many countries across the world, including the US and many EU Member States, have already adopted this “fins-attached” approach to shark fishing. Separate landings enabled by special permits also preclude the collection of critical data, such as species, age, and size, which are vital to the effective management and conservation of sharks.

Following the initial 2003 ban of shark finning among EU Member States, the European Parliament reconvened again in 2006, calling for a stronger EU shark finning ban. Discussion and research that followed led to the EU Shark Action Plan released by the European Commission in February 2009, a document which highlighted the urgent need to end finning and improve regulations. The Shark Action Plan set the stage for today’s vote, as the document sparked last year’s proposal by the European Commission to end the removal of shark fins on-board without exemption. The fate of Europe’s shark finning won’t end with today’s vote; the full Parliament will also convene to review this proposal and vote on a final response within the next few months.

To learn more about shark finning and the global state of sharks, visit