Sharks: the situation today
Basking shark feeding (Cetorhinus maximus) off Cornwall UK © Dan Burton/naturepl.com
The sharks, rays and chimaeras classed as chondrichthyans, and commonly referred to as 'sharks', have been exploited increasingly since the mid-1980s due to higher demand for shark products (especially fins, but also meat, skin, cartilage, etc.), principally in Asian markets. Between 1984 and 2004, global shark catches grew from 600 000 to over 810 000 tonnes.
The European Union's fishing fleet has taken part in this fishing pressure for a number of reasons:
- several species of sharks and rays are found near coasts and are therefore directly affected by coastal fishing activities, presently characterised by increased fishing effort, limited selectivity and fleet overcapacity;
- in a global context of depletion of commercial stocks, sharks represent a resource as their flesh is consumed in many countries, including European Union Member States;
- deep-water sharks are the leading by-catch in deep-water fishing, an activity that has expanded over the past 15 years.
Shark populations are generally fragile because of certain characteristics of their life cycle: low fertility rate, large juveniles, slow growth and late maturity. Their capacity to restore their population in case of overfishing is consequently limited. As a result, these ancient species, which play a key role in maintaining balance in marine ecosystems, are sometimes endangered by overfishing and illegal fishing. For example, several species caught by the EU fleet in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are on the Red List drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some are 'critically endangered' (spurdog, porbeagle shark, several species of angel shark and ray), and others are 'endangered' (basking shark) or 'vulnerable' (short-finned mako, blue shark and hammerhead shark).