Fishermen, Facing Declining Stocks, Turn to Sharks
BEIJING Declining fish stocks mean that in some parts of the world fishermen are increasingly turning their attention to sharks, where a lack of regulation further threatens many species' survival, an environmentalist said on Wednesday.
Sharks are caught not only for their fins -- a popular dish at Chinese banquets -- but increasingly for their meat, said Sarah Fowler, co-chair of the World Conservation Union's shark specialist group.
Over-fishing threatens 20 percent of the world's 547 shark and ray species with extinction, the World Conservation Union -- also known as IUCN -- said earlier this year.
"It is a relatively recent phenomenon that as other fish stocks decline and become managed, sharks become increasingly important as an alternative catch," Fowler told a news conference in Beijing, where she was attending a shark conservation meeting.
"In Europe, as we see important fisheries like cod become increasingly regulated, fishermen can switch to shark and ray fisheries which have no management," Fowler added. "On the high seas, as tuna stocks are depleted, sharks are becoming increasingly important in catches."
Only a few countries manage their shark populations, such as Australia and the United States, and regulation in the European Union is patchy or non-existent.
The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates 100 million sharks are caught each year, though experts say the real figure could be twice that, leading to a dramatic drop in the populations of some species.
Many sharks are caught just for their fins, which are hacked off by fishermen who then dump the dying sharks into the sea.
Sharks' fin, once offered as a gift to emperors, is traditionally served at Chinese wedding banquets and occasions when the host wants to impress guests with expensive and unusual dishes. Some also believe it is good for health.
"Perhaps the most important cause of declining shark stocks is the huge international trade demand for shark fin," Fowler said.
Agreements to manage shark catches to within sustainable levels -- and many species reproduce slowly -- are not being implemented fast enough, she said, adding shark stocks and perhaps entire species could be wiped out if fisheries management and biodiversity conservation tools were not used.
Researchers said last week the world's fish and seafood populations would collapse by 2048 if current trends in habitat destruction and overfishing continued.