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More protection for sharks - 06/08/2009

Surfers attacked by sharks - a typical summer headline, in some parts of the world. But really it's the sharks who need protecting - over a third of all shark species living in the open seas are threatened with extinction.

In Europe, sharks don't get a very good press. Not exactly loved, "exotic" is about the nicest write-up they get. And that's not enough to stop them being abused, often in bizarre ways. Last month, 30 frozen sharks were discovered, their stomachs stuffed with cocaine. And in the Far East, shark-fin soup is still a delicacy that a great many of the creatures are killed for every year. Shark finning involves fishermen cutting the dorsal fins from live sharks and throwing the animals back into the sea to die a painful death. There are no restrictions on this practice based on either size, age or species.

Fishing fleets across the world are striving to meet the ever-growing demand for shark fins. This causes overfishing of shark stocks, particularly tough for sharks to recover from, given their long lifespans, late sexual maturity and low reproduction rates.

Extinction is a growing possibility.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has drawn up a global list of threatened shark species, headed by the squat-headed hammerhead, the scalloped hammerhead and the giant devilray as the most at risk.

The IUCN says a coordinated international conservation plan is urgently needed. This is why the EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg has just announced an action plan to preserve and manage shark stocks, approved by EU governments in April.

The plan is designed to protect all cartilaginous fish, a class that includes sharks, skates and rays – over 1 000 species in all. In the EU, shark finning has already been banned for some years now. The new plan is set to introduce more rigorous surveillance measures that should help the entire marine ecosystem, suffering from ever more intensive fishing.

At the end of this year, the IUCN's expert group on sharks will publish an updated report on the situation of 400 cartilaginous fish species.

Q&A - EU shark plan

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