|European Shark and Ray Fishing
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization
(FAO) catch statistics, Spain, France, Portugal, and the United Kingdom (UK) rank among the top 20 ‘shark’ (term also includes rays and chimaeras) fishing countries, putting the EU second in the world for landings of these species. Spain ranks third overall with 7.3 percent of the total global shark catch, while France, Portugal and the UK come in 12th, 16th and 19th, respectively.
Spanish and Portuguese longliners venture far into the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans for oceanic sharks which they take and often target along with tuna and swordfish. Catch from these vessels is typically 80 percent blue sharks and 10 percent shortfin mako, but oceanic whitetip, silky, thresher, hammerhead and porbeagle sharks are also taken.
Whereas there are a few French and UK vessels taking sharks on the high seas, the ‘shark’ catches for France and the UK are currently mostly made up of smaller, coastal shark species (such as catsharks and smoothhounds) as well as many types of skates and rays, taken primarily with trawls for their meat. France was the most recent, main participant in a now-closed fishery for porbeagle. The UK was the main player in the fishery that devastated the Northeast Atlantic spiny dogfish or ‘spurdog’. Europe’s exceptionally slow-growing deep-sea sharks, such as Portuguese dogfish and gulper sharks, have been essentially mined for their meat and liver oil, mainly by fishermen from France, Spain, UK, and Portugal using deep gillnets and longlines.
Denmark has a history in the porbeagle shark fishery, while Ireland took relatively large shares of the EU spurdog and deep-sea shark quotas when they were available. Irish and Belgian vessels land substantial amounts of skates and rays.
Who Catches What?
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Shark and Ray Meat
Europe is the source of a persistent demand for spurdog meat that fuels intense fisheries around the world. Spurdog meat is sold for fish and chips in the UK and as smoked belly flaps in Germany, while fillets are eaten in other EU countries including Belgium, France and Italy. Because the largest animals fetch the best price, spurdog fisheries often target aggregations of pregnant females, resulting in serious damage to the reproductive capacity of populations.
Europe is also a major market for meat from porbeagle sharks and a variety of rays, particularly for US and Canadian fishermen. This demand may well be driving trade from other regions, but data are lacking. Italy is among the top importers of shark meat in the world, recently responsible for more than 10 percent of global imports (primarily blue shark, dogfish, porbeagle, smoothhound, catshark and mako meat).
Shark fins are the critical ingredient in shark fin soup, a traditional, celebratory Chinese dish. With demand on the rise since the 1980s, shark fins are now among the world’s most valuable fisheries products. In Hong Kong, processed fins can sell for hundreds of Euros per kilogramme. The high-value fin, in contrast to typically lower-value shark meat, creates the economic incentive for shark ‘finning' - the wasteful practice of slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding its body at sea. The EU, particularly Spain, is one of the world’s largest suppliers of shark fins to East Asia.
Bycatch, the incidental capture of non-target species, is a serious problem for sharks and rays in most EU fisheries. The level of bycatch depends on the type of fishing gear as well as where and how it is used. European angel sharks and common skates have become Critically Endangered due mainly to bycatch in unselective bottom trawls. Blue sharks have long made up a large percentage of the bycatch in EU pelagic longline fisheries for tuna and swordfish, but are now increasingly targeted. With changing markets and regulations, the lines between truly unwanted bycatch, secondary (incidental yet welcome and marketed) catch, and the targets of mixed-species fisheries are often blurred. Sharks and rays, in particular, have often been labeled by fishermen and managers as “just a bycatch” and, as a result, have had their conservation needs downplayed and overlooked.