How Galicia's fishermen got hooked on sharks

Environmentalists fear many species are being overfished

It is 4am on Monday in the fishing port of O Berbés, Vigo, and the crews of three vessels are working lustily to unload their merchandise. After almost three weeks in the Atlantic these boats, which chase swordfish, have returned to shore. Since the European Union fixed quotas for swordfish, however, there is another species that the Spanish fleet has set about snaring in greater numbers: shark. In Vigo, a greater tonnage of the mythical beast is unloaded each year than in any other European port - a little over 10,000 tons in 2009.

This crisp January Monday is no exception. The fishermen spend the night clearing the decks, anxious to finish and return to their homes to rest after sleeping in the narrow galleys of their boats. The men unload their catch in the market at the port, in proportions that tally with the general statistics of the fleet. These numbers indicate that the most sought-after species, aside from swordfish, is the blue shark. This alone accounts for around 85 percent of the total weight of shark unloaded in Vigo. In this shipment the sharks are small fry, far from the 80 kilos that a blue shark weighs on average. The maximum quota landed on days when the fleet returns varies between 30,000 and 45,000 kilos, depending on the number of boats that set out. The port workers pile the shark in palettes to be sold according to weight.

Since the EU fixed swordfish quotas, another species is being snared: shark
In Vigo, more shark is unloaded each year than in any other European port
The EU outlawed 'finning' in 2003, but ecologists say it is still widespread

Second in the ranking comes the shortfin mako shark, the Latin name of which, Isurus oxyrinchus, alludes to its sharp nose. Larger than the blue shark, the shortfin mako accounts for around eight percent of the total catch. It is not an easy fish for the boats to land and the crews have had to adapt their tackle to capture it. The standard fishing line used for swordfish is no use against a mako, which has sharp, curved teeth that can cut through it with ease. To snare a mako, the fleet employs wire.

The boats are not well-equipped to handle these sharks, which can grow longer than three meters. Antonio, the skipper of the Puerto de Figueras, which docks in Burela, Lugo, watches the scene with a weary gait. "With those teeth, the mako cuts like an angle grinder. I remember once we had one on deck and it was still alive. It thrashed around so much the masts shook."

Spain is, after only India and Indonesia, the country that catches the most sharks in the world - around 60 percent of the European Union total, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for 2008.

However, to say Spain is also a misnomer; Galicia provides the majority of vessels dedicated to this activity. Although activities are concentrated in the Atlantic, it is not unusual for boats to travel as far as the Pacific and the Indian Ocean in search of fishing grounds. The annual average haul in Spain is 55,000 tons in a category that also includes other species related to the shark, such as rays.

But the overall figure is much greater than that which reaches Galicia; around 10,000 tons. According to Edelmiro Ulloa, technical secretary of the National Association of Shipowners of Longline Fishing Vessels (Anapa), this is the result of selling much of the caught merchandise in ports closer to the fishing areas. The weight of the catch on the boat is also higher than when the sharks are unloaded as they are gutted at sea. On the dock, 10,000 tons is closer to 24,000 at sea.

But Spain also imports sharks. Data from the office of the secretary of state for overseas commerce shows that 5,500 tons from EU countries and 6,000 tons from further afield entered Spain in 2008.

For some years now, various environmental NGOs have warned that many species are being over-fished. One of the most combative is Oceana, which was formed in 2001 and is dedicated exclusively to conservation of the seas. This organization is vehemently against the practice of "finning," where a shark's fin is removed and the rest of the animal is thrown back overboard. Often, the shark is still alive when it is discarded. The Asian market is the main driver of finning; a small plate of shark-fin soup can retail at the equivalent of $100 in China. The European Union outlawed finning in 2003, but ecologists charge that the practice is still widespread. The EU regulation states that the theoretical weight of shark fins cannot exceed the total live weight of shark yields by more than five percent. Allison Perry, the head of Oceana's shark campaign, contests that in many species of shark the proportion between the weight of the fin and the weight of the shark is inferior, which allows for the regulation to be met while finning persists.

"The five percent rule is the highest in the world, and the most difficult to control," Perry says, adding that fishermen mix and match different species with the goal of staying below the limit. Another fault of the law, Oceana says, is that it permits the unloading of fins and bodies at different ports.

One of Spain's largest shark-fishing associations, the Organization of Longline Fishermen of A Guarda (Orpagu), based in Pontevedra, has a fleet of 37 vessels - almost half of the entire Galician fleet - and unloads almost 12,000 tons of fish per year, of which half are sharks. Juana Parada, Orpagu's director, flatly denies that the association's ships carry out finning: "Our fleet rejects this practice entirely. It would be illogical for us to cast away the body of the sharks when we have an important market niche to cover. The regulation has been in place since 2003 but finning ceased more than 15 years ago," Parada says. "Finning is not carried out for environmental reasons but for purely and strictly economic concerns: in the 1980s boats that fished far away had to dispose of the bodies because they rotted. Since freezers became standard, it is not necessary. It's money - nobody is going to throw it overboard."

Jaime Mejuto, chief investigator of the Large Pelagic Program at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, also argues that Spanish fishermen, and by extension European fishermen, scrupulously adhere to the regulations on finning. Both Mejuto and Parada, though, suspect not all countries are following suit. "European fishermen impose more sustainability management measures than any other on themselves, and carry out their activities with complete transparency. When you share the market with fleets that do not impose the same measures, one has the sensation that you are working at a clear disadvantage," says Parada.

"There are some Asian countries that will flaunt the rules if they can," adds Mejuto. "Maybe those that do not use freezing systems."

The shark-fishing boats that docked in Vigo that January morning were full in any case. After three hours of unloading, the bartering begins and lasts until midday. The auction is carried out backwards. A price is proposed and it is gradually reduced until buyers accept. Fresh blue shark retails at betweenone and 2.5 euros per kilo. The scarcer mako can cost anything up to 5 euros a kilo. But to the fish stacked up on the dock at O Berbés, fresh and frozen, we have to add the catches that reach Vigo on merchant ships. These arrivals count for the majority of the 55,000 tons that Spain harvests in total. Combined, no less than 700,000 tons of frozen fish entered Spain in 2010, easily beating the previous record set in 2006.

The business is growing because the hauls are becoming larger, and ecologists are asking how this will affect the viability of the species. Since 2010, the Spanish government has vetoed the fishing of three species of thresher shark and eight kinds of hammerhead shark. Under EU rules it is also prohibited to capture white sharks and other species such as angelfish and guitarfish. The spiny dogfish and the porbeagle shark are subject to maximum size restrictions. But there is no consensus on blue shark and mako. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) believes the former is "almost threatened" on a global scale and "vulnerable" in the Mediterranean. Mejuto denied this by falling back on data from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), which also manages shark fishing quotas. According to its estimations for 2004 and 2008, the ICCAT states that far from there being a scarcity of blue shark there is a "monumental abundance." This is due to its specific characteristics: the blue shark has a reproduction rate far higher than other species with litters of up to 35 young and the fact that its habitat spans the world's oceans. The mako, on the other hand, is the subject of more cautious appraisal. "If for the blue shark the traffic light is green, to draw a comparison, for the mako it is amber," reports ICCAT. "We haven't witnessed a substantial decline but there are numbers from other fleets that say the opposite. We must be prudent."

After Vigo, where Portuguese fishing boats habitually drop off their catch - Spain's neighbor is the second-largest shark fisher in the EU with 16,000 tons in 2008 - Las Palmas receives the largest share of Spain's catch. In both cases the yield has traditionally been destined for other European countries such as Italy and Greece. However, according to Parada, "in recent years the demand has increased in other markets such as Latin America and Russia." The reason? The quality of shark meat, which contains more protein and is cheaper than mackerel. Furthermore, unlike other fish, every part of the shark is used, from its skin to its entrails, which are used for oils and pâtés.

Toothless laws

-The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations approved an action plan for the conservation of sharks in 1999, but the European Union delayed taking it into consideration for over a decade.

- The ICCAT prohibits storing, transfer and unloading of thresher sharks and big eye threshers, white fin sharks and all but one species of hammerhead shark in its sphere of control, the Atlantic Ocean.

-The EU prohibited finning in 2003, but ecologists believe there are too many loopholes in the law. There has been no movement in putting into place a plan for the management or recuperation of elasmobranchii - rays and skates. The blue shark and mako can be fished without limitations, though fishing for white sharks, basking sharks, angelfish, blue skate, the porbeagle shark, guitarfish and various types of ray is forbidden. There is a moratorium on spiny dogfish and deep sea sharks, with exceptions.

-A ministerial order in force in Spain since 2010 prohibits the capture of three species of thresher shark and eight kinds of hammerhead shark. At the beginning of February, the Cabinet approved the inclusion of hammerhead sharks, basking sharks, thresher sharks and white sharks as well as the manta ray in the National Catalogue of Threatened Species.