Fishing minister George Eustice promises to argue the case for precautionary catch limits for overfished species.
The UK government has pledged to fight the unlimited fishing that leads to millions of sharks being killed by EU boats in the Atlantic every year.
Numerous species once widely fished by the EU, such as the porbeagle shark, have already been driven to near extinction in the Atlantic. But other species, like the blue shark, continue to be caught in huge numbers by EU boats because there are no limits on their exploitation.
“These are slow-growing, late-maturing species that have relatively few young and and all of these factors together make them vulnerable to overexploitation,” said UK fishing minister, George Eustice, on Tuesday, at the launch of the Shark Trust's No Limits No Future campaign. “We want to make sure we've got precautionary catch limits in place and we are going to be right out there in front making that argument.”
Steve Backshall, Shark Trust patron and presenter of TV's Deadly 60 programme, has swum with more than 100 species of shark and said: “The catch numbers are completely insane and they can't be sustained. The idea that these awesome creatures could vanish in my lifetime is horrifying.”
Backshall said the deadly image of sharks was wrong and that he had never felt threatened in the water, even when swimming with great white sharks. “You are more likely to be killed by a falling soft drinks machine,” he said. “If sharks were really the cruel heartless maneaters that the media makes out, I'd have been eaten years ago.”
Sharks, which have been around for more than 400 million years and survived planet-wide mass extinctions, provide some of nature's most spectacular sights, he said: “When you see the great cavernous maw of a basking shark, like an alien spaceship, that has to be one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the UK.”
Backshall said the overfishing of sharks was an issue for the UK and the EU. “There is a real tendency for people to think the problem with sharks is all about China. That's not true – the EU fleet brings in a massive amount of sharks.” Between 2000 and 2012, boats from eight EU nations including the UK have reported catches of about 13 million blue sharks, 7.5 million smoothhound sharks, 55 million catsharks and 1 million tope sharks. None of the species have any catch limit. Many are bycatch from longline fishing that is meant to target tuna and swordfish and, due to a lack of reporting, the real numbers are estimated to be three to four times higher.
Sharks themselves are increasingly a target, with blue shark catches trebling in the last decade, both for their fins and to be ground up into fishmeal. Globally, about 100 million sharks are killed annually.
Eustice has been criticised by conservation groups for failing to implement the 127 marine conservation zones around the UK that were recommended by the government's own £8m consultation. But Ali Hood, director of conservation at the Shark Trust, praised the UK government's work on sharks, which in 2013 helped to increase global protection for five shark species and also to tighten shark-finning rules.
“Over the last decade the UK government has been an active voice for shark conservation with a succession of ministers picking up the baton,” she said. “But there is still substantial scope for George Eustice to make his mark.”
“Europe is a global shark fishing power,” said Hood, meaning putting limits on catches to ensure sustainable fishing was vital.
“We strongly support scientifically justified catch limits on a number of commercially explioted sharks,” said Eustice. “But we are inevitably going to encounter political resistance from some other countries along the way, so it is very important that we mobilise public opinion behind campaigns like the No Limits No Future, so we can keep pressure on other governments and get a sustainable future for these fabulous creatures.”
photo credit Mark Conlin/NMFS - NOAA