The harvesting of fish from the sea by humankind has probably occurred ever since our ancestors stood upright and began to spread out over the surface of the earth. For most of human history the effect on fish stocks has been negligible.
Now, though, the over fishing of prime areas and the disastrous consequences for everything concerned, including fish and fishermen, are well documented. A prime example is the Grand Banks cod fishery which was ravaged by factory fishing techniques throughout the 1970s and 80s to the point of collapse. The Canadian Government closed the fishery in the early 90s but there is still doubt over whether the cod will ever recover.
Another problem is that of by-catch, where, due to European Union quotas, large quantities of non-target (but perfectly edible), species are required to be dumped back into the ocean dead, as it is prohibited to land them. Wasteful and completely ineffectual in terms of helping to conserve fish stocks.
Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the fish groups currently most under threat is sharks. Of the 400 or so species it is estimated that half are threatened with extinction, a shocking statistic indeed and one which begs the question: why sharks?
The major problem sharks have is the demand in East Asia for their fins, the essential ingredient of shark fin soup. Supplying this lucrative market can only be achieved by killing large numbers of sharks. And because the demand for shark fins far exceeds that for shark meat, many carcasses are dumped back in the sea minus, of course, the dorsal and pectoral fins.
Worldwide many millions of sharks are slaughtered every year, in quantities that are completely unsustainable. Sharks are long-lived and reproduce slowly. Population declines will take many years to recover.
For some time European fishing vessels have been prohibited from removing the fins from sharks and dumping the carcase, a common practice in many parts of the world. European vessels have had to land fins and carcases in a ratio of weights designed to ensure that every part of the shark makes it to shore, one carcase for every dorsal fin.
OK in theory, of course, but conservation groups have long complained that the rule is not adhered to, with up to half the carcases still being discarded.
Such groups have been pressing the EU to legislate that all sharks must be landed with their fins attached as happens in many of the USA shark fisheries. This, they argue, would be far more transparent and easy to monitor and enforce.
The European Commission now appears to have accepted this argument and to have recognised the danger posed to European and global shark populations. It has recently proposed measures designed to protect them and hopefully halt the decline. The first of these measures is the proposal that all EU vessels must land sharks with their fins attached wherever in the world they operate.
In addition, for commercially targeted species, catch limits would be set in line with the best scientific advice, and fishing would be banned in those areas where breeding and rearing takes place – plus, a ban on the catching of threatened species.
Further measures would include placing observers aboard those vessels reporting large numbers of sharks as “accidental” by-catch, and the collection of more scientific data in order to better inform future policy.
The consequences of depleting shark numbers on the whole marine ecosystem can only be imagined as still too little is known about sharks and their role in ocean ecology.
The European Commission has made a commendable start in redressing the balance and it is to be hoped that the European Parliament and Council of Ministers will approve its proposals.
That would perhaps give sharks some breathing space at least, whilst further research looks at ways of conserving them at the same time as permitting the harvesting of a valuable and important source of food.