gone fishin’, capitalism-style

Death traps destroying Atlantic sharks

· Deepwater stocks fall to 20% of original levels
· Nets left for months or discarded on seabed

John Vidal and Louise Murray
The Guardian
Tuesday October 4, 2005

Shark populations have fallen sharply in British and international waters because of a fleet of trawlers laying thousands of miles of semi-permanent nets on the sea bed.

The fishery is believed to be netting at least 50,000 tonnes of sharks a year in 180-mile long gill nets. The sharks are taken mainly for their oil, which is sold to cosmetic and health food companies, but are also increasingly being sold to supermarkets for their meat, says a report by a group of Irish, Norwegian and British government investigators.

The damage done to several shark species as well as to monk fish has been immense, says the report. In the past 10 years, it says, stocks of north Atlantic deepwater sharks have fallen to about 20% of original levels.

The boats, owned by Spanish companies registered mainly in Britain, work British, Irish and international waters near St Kilda, the islet of Rockall and the area west of the Hebrides.

“It is quite frightening what they are doing. Each boat is probably landing about 100 tonnes of shark a trip. They are also discarding vast amounts. This is big business. Something needs to be done urgently,” said Dominic Rihan of the Irish fisheries board yesterday.

According to the Irish Fisheries board, the ships drop their nets for three to 10 days at a time, retrieving them weeks or months later. This produces death traps on the seabed that continue to catch and kill fish and sharks. In addition, each boat is thought to discard up to 18 miles of net each trip and these “ghost nets” continue to entangle sharks for years.

The fishery is unregulated, and it is not illegal to use gill nets to catch shark in these waters. “The only regulations that apply are on mesh size and quotas. Shark quotas in EU waters were only brought in last year and it is very difficult to follow what is being landed. There is no regulation on the amount of fishing gear they can use. There is serious unreporting of catches. It is madness,” said Mr Rihan.

Stocks of several deepwater sharks found in the north Atlantic have reportedly fallen to 20% of original levels in the past 10 years. Leafscale gulper shark and Portuguese dogfish numbers have crashed by 80% in 10 years. These animals are listed in the world conservation union Red list as endangered. “The fishery is a criminal waste of a rare marine resource,” said Ali Hood of the Shark Trust.

The fishery crisis was identified earlier this year after a survey by the India Rose, an Irish Sea Fisheries Board vessel which found weighted nets sitting on the sea bed rising up about two metres; the India Rose hauled up 24 miles of abandoned gill net on her short voyage. The net held seven tonnes of sharks, of which 60% had to be thrown overboard. A further 180 miles of lost net was found but the India Rose was unable to retrieve it.

“There seemed to be a deep reluctance to talk about this fishery, in fact almost an unwritten law of silence seems to exist,” said the authors of the report who interviewed people in several countries.

On Monday this week the UK authorities sent out the FV Kirkella, to determine the scale of the problem in UK waters for the first time. The fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, said: “The report makes worrying reading and we’re in discussions with the European Commission to find an effective way of tackling the issues it raises.”

See also: The Guardian Special report, “Global fishing crisis”.

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