Sharks, rays and chimaeras (chondrichthyans, commonly referred to as 'sharks') are ancient species that play a vital role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems. Since the mid-1980s, they have been under increasingly intense fishing pressure due to higher demand for shark products (meat, fins, skin, cartilage, etc.), especially in Asian markets. This over-exploitation affects populations that are generally fragile and is leading some species to the brink of extinction.
Rays and small shallow-water sharks
Most chondrichthyans (rays, sharks and chimaera) caught by the European fleet occur in our coastal waters. European fishing vessels annually catch around 42 500 tonnes of rays (Raja spp.), including thornback rays (R. clavata), cuckoo rays (R. naevus), skates (R. batis), spotted rays (R. montagui) and long-nosed skates (R. oxyrinchus), as well as small coastal spurdogs such as piked dogfishes (Squalus acanthias), smoothhounds (Mustelus mustelus), dogfishes (Scyliorhinus canicula) and tope sharks (Galeorhinus galeus). Although small European directed fisheries exist for spurdogs and thornback rays, these species are generally by-catches in fisheries targeting other commercial stocks, mainly coastal fisheries using demersal trawls and bottom-set gillnets. These are precisely the fisheries with fleet overcapacity, which explains the overexploitation of these coastal species.
The main pelagic species exploited by the European fleet are mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus) and blue sharks (Prionace glauca). These species and a few others add up to around 42 000 tonnes of EU catches, 25 000 tonnes of which are blue sharks. Sharks in this category are generally by-catches in other pelagic fisheries, primarily surface longline fishing directed at tuna, swordfish and marlin, in all the world's oceans. Nonetheless, 88% of the European Union's pelagic shark catches are made by longliners operating in the Atlantic Ocean (68% of shark by-catches). This fishery supplies most of the fins exported to China. The state of these stocks is not well known owing to the incomplete nature of catch and fishing effort declarations. Stocks of blue sharks appear to be sound however, unlike many other species.
Deep-sea sharks are caught in the mixed deep-water fisheries (using bottom trawls, bottom-set gillnets and bottom-set longlines) that have expanded over the last 15 years in the Northeast Atlantic. The main species concerned are leaf-scale gulper sharks (Centrophorus squamosus), Portuguese dogfishes (Centroscymnus coelolepis) and kitefin sharks (Dalatias licha). These catches of deep-sea sharks are declining, probably due to catch restriction measures (TACs and the ban on the use of gillnets at depths of over 200m), but another reason may be their shrinking population.
Legislation and official documents
Commission staff working paper Draft (2011) XXX – Impact Assessment accompanying the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Regulation (EC) 1185/2003 on the removal of fins of sharks on board vessels
Commission staff working document SEC (2009) 103 – Impact assessment accompanying the communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on a European Community Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks