It's a beautiful, benign - and endangered - relative of the great white. So
why isn't more being done to stop fishermen going after the porbeagle?
By Peter Marren
Published: 05 April 2007
Three years ago a Cornish fisherman had a rare stroke of luck. Off the coast
of the county, on his 40-foot fishing boat The Prevail, he encountered a
large shoal of sharks. Their streamlined, spindle-shaped bodies and
characteristic pointed noses told him this was the porbeagle, an
ocean-going, cold-water relative of the great white shark.
This was lucky for three reasons. Firstly, large aggregations of porbeagle
are increasingly unusual. Secondly, the porbeagle is the most valuable shark
in the ocean, worth around £2 per kilo or up to £500 per shark to the
fisherman. It is worth a lot more by the time it ends up on a plate in top
restaurants as "veau de mer". This is not a fish you can buy in a chip shop.
And, thirdly, because, despite scientific recommendations in 2005 and 2006
to close the North-east Atlantic fishery completely, porbeagle fishing is
unregulated. Any fisherman lucky enough to come across large numbers of
porbeagle - or for that matter any other shark except the basking shark or
the great white - can catch as many as he likes.
And that is what this particular fisherman did. After a hard day's hauling
using a six-mile long-line baited with mackerel, The Prevail returned to
harbour weighed down with 64 adult porbeagles in the hold. Over the next
nine days he caught another 63. His exploits were filmed and attracted a lot
of attention, not all of it congratulatory. The Shark Trust, a conservation
body, condemned the targeting of this particular shark as "short-sighted"
and "potentially disastrous". The fisherman retorted, perhaps reasonably,
that his catch was "a drop in the ocean" compared with the French. By all
accounts it is the French that have the most cultivated taste for endangered
The Shark Trust's dismay was based on a grim fact of biology. Sharks are
slow growing, mature late and produce few young. Unlike cod, which lay
thousands of eggs, the porbeagle gives birth to just four pups a year, and
that is after a nine-month pregnancy. Allowing for the numerous hazards
awaiting a young shark, this provides for a population increase of between 5
and 7 per cent per year. Once you factor in fishing pressure from fast
modern vessels equipped with long-lines or vast seine nets, the shark is
sunk. Far more are caught than can be replaced.
Last August, the Shark Alliance, an international coalition of NGOs
concerned with the marine environment, published a dossier on European
sharks. Based on catch data from fishing fleets, the figures tell their own
story. Norway once operated a targeted fishery for porbeagle which peaked at
6,000 tons in post-war years. By 1960 the fishery had collapsed; in recent
years, Norwegian vessels have landed an average of just 20 tons. Danish
catch rates have similarly fallen from 1,500 tons in the 1950s to just 50
tons recently. French fleets were catching over 1,000 tons as recently as
1979, but by the 1990s this had shrunk to 300 to 400 tons despite the
ongoing demand and improvements in fishing technology.
On top of that, unknown numbers of porbeagle are being taken by Taiwanese,
Korean and Japanese long-line vessels. "We know that porbeagle meat goes
into the international trade," says Sonja Fordham, policy director of the
Shark Alliance. "But it is difficult to quantify it because customs data
records it simply as 'shark meat' or 'shark'." The Shark Alliance is in a
quandary. "If the porbeagle was listed on Cites [Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species] then fisheries would have to supply trade
data," says Sonja. "But we need better trade data to bolster the
justification for listing." It's a catch-22.
The regulation of commercial fishing is based on stock assessment. In
Canadian coastal waters, where the porbeagle fishery is regulated, reliable
stock data indicates a decline to 11 per cent of the former level. The
recent annual catch has been around 180 tons, less than the total allowable
catch, which means that the fishery has effectively collapsed. In the
North-east Atlantic the data is less complete but enough to indicate that
landings have decreased by 85 per cent since the 1930s.
Meeting in Oxford to discuss the global plight of migratory, open-sea
sharks, the Shark Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)
agreed that practically every species of large shark found in European
waters was heading for extinction. The group proposed radical changes to the
IUCN's red list of threatened species. The porbeagle is now considered
critically endangered in European and North-east Atlantic waters. Even the
"common" thresher shark is now considered globally vulnerable, meaning that
we could be the last generation to witness this shark leaping from the sea
like a dolphin.
The problem is entirely man-made. "Despite mounting threats and evidence of
decline, there are no international catch limits for open-sea sharks", said
Sonja Fordham. We are blindly fishing them into oblivion. As far as the
North-east Atlantic and the Mediterranean are concerned, the solution is in
the hands of the European Union which has powers to impose regulation
throughout the area. Indeed, pressed by the mounting evidence of declining
stocks of porbeagle, and calls for a fishery closure by the scientists
tasked with fishery management advice, the EU commissioner did eventually
agree to act.
The EU regulates fishing by means of a Total Allowable Catch, known as a
TAC. Last year the EU Fisheries Council was at least able to agree on the
size of the TAC - an annual EU quota of 174 tons. This received faint praise
from shark specialists, who would have preferred a total ban to give stocks
a chance to recover. Nevertheless, the prospect of a management plan based
on principles of sustainability - something that shark fisheries lack -
offered a solution. According to the Fisheries Council's press release last
December, the TAC on porbeagle was adopted.
Except that it wasn't. It transpired that the proposal had been torpedoed at
the last minute by EU Fisheries ministers. The argument, it seems, fell
apart on a technicality. TACs are made to conserve stocks, but the porbeagle
had become too depleted to warrant a TAC. Behind the wordplay
conservationists strongly suspect intervention by France and Spain. Despite
growing public concern, it seems the EU Commission was swayed more by
self-interested fishing lobbies than the arguments of conservationists and
In the danger zone
Type: Fast, powerful shark, closely related to the great white, but smaller
and feeding solely on fish and squid.
Threats: Unregulated long-line fisheries. High demand as the world's most
expensive shark meat. Inshore population exhausted.
Status: Critically endangered in North-east Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Type: World's fastest shark - but not as fast as modern fishing boats.
Threats: Over-fishing, especially by Spanish tuna vessels. Global catches
doubled since 1990.
Status: Vulnerable in North-east Atlantic, critically endangered in
Type: Sleek, wide-ranging blue-grey shark. Regularly crosses the Atlantic.
Threats: Declines of 50 to 70 per cent in North Atlantic since 1990. No
European or international catch restrictions.
Status: Vulnerable in the North Atlantic. "Near threatened" globally.
COMMON THRESHER SHARK
Type: Unmistakable scythe-like tail almost as long as body.
Threats: Caught mainly as by-catch one long-lines.
Status: Common no more. Considered vulnerable globally.
SPINY DOGFISH OR SPURDOG
Type: Small, slender shark with spiny fin.
Threats: Huge demand as "rock salmon" in fish-and-chip shops.
Status: Once the world's most common shark, now critically endangered in
Published: 05 April 2007
Barry Kent MacKay
Animal Protection Institute