By Don Melvin
The EU's executive arm says that it wants to completely ban shark finning - the practice of removing sharks' fins and throwing the finless creatures back into the sea to die.
Under the proposal approved by the European Commission, all boats in EU waters - and EU-registered boats anywhere in the world - would have to land sharks with their fins attached to prove that the rest of the shark had not been discarded. The law, should it go into effect, would primarily affect fishing vessels from Spain and Portugal.
In theory, the EU already bans shark finning. But as it now stands, the fins and bodies can be separated on board vessels with special permits, and then landed at different ports. The EU tries to ensure that no bodies have been discarded by making sure the weight of the fins does not exceed 5 percent of the entire weight of the fish landed.
But environmentalists have called the EU effort lenient and a loophole, and said having the fins and carcasses offloaded at different ports made the law difficult to enforce. EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki on Monday agreed.
"We want to end the horrendous practice of shark finning and protect sharks much better," he said.
The environmental group Oceana welcomed the proposal, saying it deplored the waste involved in discarding the body, which can be used for food. The practice of shark finning is driven by the lower value of shark meat compared to the fins, which are in demand in China for use in shark fin soup.
Also, landing the fins and bodies still attached allows researchers to document the variety of sharks taken and use the data to protect the fish populations, said Amelie Malafosse, a policy adviser at Oceana.
The European Commission says sharks are vulnerable to over-exploitation because they mature late and give birth to small numbers of young at a time. And some species have come under threat because of the sharp increase in demand for the fins, the commission said.
To become law, the proposal must also be approved by the European Council - the 27 EU heads of government - and the European Parliament. European Parliament fisheries committee Vice President Struan Stevenson predicted a tough fight.
"When these proposals come before MEPs," he said, referring to members of the European Parliament, "I have no doubt that a few countries will seek to water them down. However, we will push for a rigorous ban. We need a ban on finning that enables fishermen to catch sharks in a way that puts conservation and humane treatment before making a quick buck."