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5 things you need to know about the proposed European Union shark finning ban, including how you can help

Image from Jessica King, Marine Photobank

All eyes in the shark world are focused on Belgium, where the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee votes Wednesday on one of the most significant conservation policies in years: a stronger EU-wide ban on shark finning via a prohibition on removing sharks at sea, with no more  exceptions. Since some of the details are quite technical, emotions are running high, and a lot of misinformation is spreading, I’ve prepared a quick guide to help our readers understand the proposed policy. For much more detailed updates, follow the Shark Alliance’s blog.

1) The proposed policy would strengthen the current EU finning ban, not ban fins. As has previously been discussed, some of the language surrounding shark conservation policy can be confusing. As a reminder, shark finning is the act of removing fins from a shark at sea and dumping the body overboard. Finning of live sharks is incredibly inhumane (the “finned” shark will bleed to death or drown when dumped overboard), and incredibly wasteful whether the shark is alive or dead (less than 5% of the shark is used). Scientists are almost universally opposed to shark finning because it is often associated with  unsustainable fishing and the practice makes it difficult for managers to know what species of shark the fin came from. The policy that the European Parliament is voting on is an amendment to the current EU  “finning ban”,” which relies on a complicated and lenient fin to carcass ratio for enforcement.  The European Commission has proposed requiring that sharks be landed with fins still attached, which would strengthen enforcement and data collection capabilities. This is not a “fin ban” that would make it illegal to buy, sell, or possess fins.

2) If this proposal passes, it will help sharks. A lot. Requiring that fishermen land sharks naturally attached is an important step in the path to sustainable shark fisheries management. It will help enforcement agents ensure that finning is not taking place and help scientists and managers to keep track of how much of which species are being taken. Since the European Union is the world’s largest supplier of shark fins to the markets in Asia and a powerful force at all international fisheries bodies, an EU-wide switch to more sustainable fishing practices could have an enormous impact.

3) The devil is in the details with conservation policy. A 2003 regulation already banned finning for EU vessels, but it is full of loopholes and the Shark Alliance calls it “among the most lenient in the world”. Specifically, it allows EU members states to issue special permits for their fishermen to remove fins at sea as long as they keep the carcasses (and the total weight of landed fins can’t exceed a certain ratio of the total weight of landed carcasses). Such a measure is called a “Fin to carcass ratio limit”, and they are widely criticized by the scientific and conservation community since the actual ratio of fin weight to body weight varies widely by shark species, shark age, and fin removal practice (which allows some “cheating” by fishermen). The new rule would eliminate these special permits and require that all EU vessels land sharks with fins naturally attached with no exceptions.

4) This is a big step, but just one step on a very long road.The Shark Alliance has been pushing for this since 2006, a process they’ve chronicled with an interactive infographic. If the European Parliament Fisheries Committee passes the proposal, it still has to go before the full Parliament. Even then, there’s still a lot of work to do to protect sharks around the world, including pushing for other countries to stop finning, species-specific protections for particularly threatened species (including but not limited to CITES and fishing bans), requirements that fishermen report the species composition of their catch, and more.

5) The vote is expected to be close, but you can help! The Shark Alliance is asking for the public to show their support by tweeting at Members of Parliament who serve on the Fisheries Committee. This is a quick and easy way for us to demonstrate that there is a lot of public interest in (and support for) the finning ban. Follow the Shark Alliance on twitter and check out their recent updates. You can RT their tweets, but composing your own would be a big help.  Here are some suggestions:

We need your support to prevent shark finning. Vote on September 19 to end fin removal at sea, no exceptions. (109 characters with spaces).
MEPs: we need your support to prevent shark finning. Vote Wednesday to end fin removal at sea, no exceptions. (109 characters with spaces)
MEPs on Fisheries Committee: help prevent shark finning by voting September 19 to end fin removal at sea, no exceptions (120 characters with spaces).
MEPs on PECH Committee: help prevent shark finning by voting September 19 to end fin removal at sea, no exceptions (115 characters with spaces).
Shark fin finale in European Parliament: MEPs must vote Sept 19 to end removal of fins at sea, no exceptions (109 characters with spaces).
Urging PECH MEPs to vote Sept 19 to strengthen EU shark finning ban thru ban on at-sea fin removal, no exceptions! (115 characters with spaces).
Seeking MEPs to help prevent shark finning by voting September 19 to end fin removal at sea, no exceptions! (106 characters with spaces).
Crucial vote on shark finning. Ask Fisheries Committee MEPs to vote Sept 19 for ending at-sea fin removal, no exceptions! (121 characters with spaces).
Fisheries Committee MEPs choose Sept 19 to close loopholes in EU shark finning ban. Ask them to end fin removal at sea. (119 characters with spaces).
 Additionally, here are the twitter handles of all the MEPs on the Fisheries Committee. Contacting any or all will be helpful, but it will be particularly helpful if you contact your country’s representative.