It is difficult to imagine how anyone could cut off the fins of a living, breathing and sentient creature and throw the animal back into the sea to drown. Yet this is the fate that befalls untold millions of sharks across the globe for the sole purpose of supplying the market for shark fin soup.
Not all sharks are, of course, still alive when their fins are removed, but the practice of discarding the rest of a carcass at sea, purely because shark meat has a limited economic value, is an obscene waste whichever way you look at it. Shark finning is a highly unsustainable practice. By discarding the body and just landing the fins, boats can catch many of the highly profitable shark fins at each outing. The practice threatens shark populations and jeopardises the balance of marine ecosystems.
Humane Society International is encouraging Members of the European Parliament to vote to protect sharks from this cruel and unsustainable practice when the issue is debated in the parliament later this month.
Sharks are highly vulnerable to over-exploitation, owing to their slow growth, long gestation and low reproductive output. Over-exploited shark stocks can take decades to bounce back. Some European shark fisheries that were closed 40 years ago remain closed because populations have still not recovered.
There is one remarkably simple way to eradicate the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning. This is to ensure that each and every single shark caught anywhere in the world is landed with fins still naturally attached.
Throughout the past decade, more and more countries have started to adopt legislation that prohibits the removal of shark fins onboard vessels. Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Oman, Panama, South Africa (applies only to sharks caught in their own waters), Taiwan, United Kingdom and the United States (with an exemption for smooth dogfish) all now require that sharks are landed with their fins naturally attached.
The European Union, however, still has one of the weakest shark finning bans in the world. Although Regulation (EC) No 1185/2003 essentially prohibits the removal of fins of sharks at sea, it includes a derogation that still allows onboard processing of fins if member states have granted vessels a Special Fishing Permit.
The problem with these permits is that they are anything but special when it comes to the Spanish and Portuguese fleets. They are more the norm than the exception. Fishermen are allowed to remove fins weighing up to 5% of the shark's live body weight on board. With such a lenient fin-to-carcass ratio, it is theoretically possible for two out of every three sharks that are caught by EU vessels to be finned and thrown back. Worse still, under the terms of the legislation, fishermen are even permitted to land fins and carcasses at separate ports. This basically renders the legislation unenforceable.
It also became clear to the European Commission that member states were failing to adhere to their reporting requirements. Numerous violations, particularly concerning the fin-to-carcass ratio, were recorded in the few reports received by the Commission. The lack of a strong EU shark finning regulation was also hindering the Commission's ability to push for a fins naturally attached policy elsewhere in the world, such as the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where finning is known to be rife.
In November 2011, after considerable pressure from both NGOs, such as Humane Society International, and the European Parliament, the Commission finally adopted a robust legislative proposal to amend the present EU shark finning legislation to ensure that all sharks caught by EU vessels anywhere in the world must be landed with their fins naturally attached without exception.
Only Spain and Portugal among EU member states have raised objections to this proposal. This is far from surprising given that Spain has the third largest shark fishing industry in the world; Portugal stands at number 16 in the global rankings.
In March 2012, the Council of the European Union confirmed its support of the Commission's proposal. That was followed, in April 2012, with support from the European Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, which adopted an opinion overwhelmingly in favour of the Commission's proposal.
But the Fisheries Committee vote on 19 September 2012 was a dramatic example of how politicians can make a complete dog's breakfast out of a vote. The final adopted report contained major discrepancies while both sides claimed victory.
Therefore, the battle to achieve a fins naturally attached policy without exception in the EU is far from over. The fight will be carried on into the full Parliament at a plenary session, due to take place on 22 November, and where new attempts will undoubtedly be made to dilute the Commission's proposal.
What the politicians, certainly from the European People's Party group, are going to have to ask themselves is whether they really want to be voting in the national interests of the Spanish and Portuguese fishing industry, or if should they do the right thing and finally give sharks the protection that they deserve.
Humane Society International is encouraging Members of the European Parliament to vote to protect sharks from the cruel and unsustainable practice of shark finning.
Please send a message to your MEP today and ask for a vote in favour of a fins naturally attached policy without exception.
Find out more about how you can get involved with HSI campaigns worldwide to end the brutal practice of shark finning.
Follow Mark Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hsiglobal