Sharks in the Baltic

New report examines 31 species of sharks and related species under threat in the Baltic Sea

Stockholm 15th May 2008: A new report on sharks and related species in the Baltic Sea from the Shark Alliance highlights the threats to these over–looked fish and calls for improved conservation policies.

The report documents the distribution and status of 31 species sharks, rays and chimaeras (collectively known as cartilaginous fishes) in the Baltic and transitional areas, details how current safeguards are insufficient in the face of current fishing and environmental pressures, and outlines recommendations for the governments of Germany and other EU Member States.

"Sharks are here, but not for long — if we don't change our ways," said Heike Zidowitz, Shark Alliance coordinator for Germany and lead author of the report. "Sharks and related species are poorly studied and inadequately protected throughout most European waters, and our analysis reveals that these failings are even more severe for the Baltic region. Improvements are possible through expanding existing protections and ensuring that the final EU Plan of Action for Sharks is strong," continued Zidowitz.

Most existing EU management measures for sharks and rays exclude the Baltic. Germany has created Baltic nature reserves and has led the battle for international trade restrictions on sharks, but still holds EU quota shares for Critically Endangered shark species and is one of just a handful of EU Member States to allow the removal of shark fins at sea (under a derogation in the EU ban on shark "finning"). Because of Germany's position on the saltier end of the Baltic Sea, many of the shark, ray and chimaera species described in the report can be found off the German coast.

"Baltic sharks, rays and chimaeras represent the fringe of species' range, rather than separate populations, but reflect and contribute to overall population health," said Dr. Michael George, a Hamburg–based ichthyologist and co–author of the report. "Further research is needed for a more complete picture of many species' status and conservation needs. In the meantime, their tendency to grow slowly, mature late and produce few young argues for precautionary protections."

One shark well known in Germany for which the scientific advice is clear is the spurdog, or spiny dogfish. The IUCN classifies the regional population as Critically Endangered and scientists have recommended that all fishing cease. In Germany, spurdog meat is sold as Seeaal or Schillerlocken. Germany is a leading importer of spurdog and still lands the species under EU quota shares; at the same time, Germany has led a battle to restrict spurdog international trade. Baltic spurdog were regulated for only one year (2007); currently only Sweden limits their catch from the Baltic. Germany has also championed trade limits for Critically Endangered porbeagle sharks, yet took a share of the first EU porbeagle quota imposed this year. Authors of the report are calling for attention to these and additional inconsistencies and loopholes in limits affecting Baltic sharks.

"We call on the German government to bolster its case for international trade restrictions for spurdog and porbeagle by leading the charge to minimise their catch at home," added Zidowitz. "Germany should also stand firm against the wasteful practice of shark finning by requiring their vessels to land sharks with their fins still attached. These actions will help sharks in the Baltic and beyond, and will reflect the German people's growing concern for these valuable yet vulnerable species."

Notes to Editors

The Shark Alliance is urging all Baltic country governments to

  • promote science-based shark and ray fishing limits and protection for endangered species
  • improve the monitoring and assessment of Baltic shark and ray populations
  • facilitate research into effects on cartilaginous fish from Baltic fisheries, salinity and anoxia
  • promote attention to sharks and rays under international treaties and regional bodies
  • engage in developing and implementing a sound European Plan of Action for Sharks

In addition, the Shark Alliance is calling specifically on Germany to

  • discontinue issuing the special fishing permits that allow shark fins to be removed at sea
  • ensure fishing limits for Critically Endangered spurdog in the Baltic are reinstated by 2009
  • relinquish their EU quota share for porbeagle sharks and work to end targeted fishing for this Critically Endangered species through a strict EU limit by 2009.
  • remain vigilant in its efforts to list spurdog and porbeagle sharks under CITES
  • improve the reporting of shark catches, imports and exports
  • The spurdog is a slender, white-spotted shark that grows to about one metre in length and travels in schools. Found in cool, coastal waters worldwide, it has been fished for centuries.
  • Spurdog fisheries usually target reproductive females (which are known to be pregnant for just under two years) and are very poorly regulated. This combination of factors has led to serious overfishing, most severely off Europe.
  • Germany is a world leader in imports of spurdog from North America, receiving 25 per cent of Canada's exports and nearly 20 per cent of the US exports in recent years. Other sources of spurdog imports include Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the UK, and New Zealand.
  • Germany has proposed that trade in spurdog be regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an action that could also dramatically help spurdog populations around the world that are fished primarily for export to the EU.
  • Germany has also proposed listing Critically Endangered porbeagle sharks under CITES.
  • Germany holds 2008 EU quota shares amounting to 41t of spurdog and 6t of porbeagle.
  • The EU has banned "finning" (slicing off a shark’s fins and tossing the body overboard) by the best means possible: prohibiting the removal of fins at sea. A derogation, however, allows Member States to issue special permits for onboard fin removal under lenient, poorly enforced rules.
  • Germany and Lithuania are the only Baltic countries to have issued these problematic permits.

The European Commission will complete an EU Plan of Action for Sharks by December 2008. This plan can set the stage for sound fishing limits, endangered species protection, and a stronger finning ban, but support from conservation–minded Member States is needed to balance opposition from fishing interests.