Ten Ton Shark Catch Raises Questions About Fishing Regulations

Controversy has been ignited after a fishing trawler from Cornwall, England accidentally caught 10 tons of shark while fishing for John Dory off the Isles of Scilly. The overwhelming majority of the sharks caught were spurdogs, a small, benthic species also known as mud sharks or spiny dogfish. Under EU law, these sharks are protected by a zero Total Allowable Catch (TAC) restriction implemented in 2010, which made it illegal for fishermen to target spurdogs or to keep them if caught accidentally.

In compliance with this law, the crew of the Newlyn trawler threw their 10-ton catch back into the ocean. Unfortunately, many of the sharks were already dead, crushed by the weight of the catch as it was hauled from the sea or suffocated in the time it took the crew to untangle them from the net. According to local fishermen, this incident highlights a major flaw in EU fishing legislation, one that they claim is detrimental not only to their own interests, but to the health of future spurdog populations as well.

The zero TAC was introduced in 2010 to address fears that unsustainable spurdog catches (either directly for food or as a result of by-catch) were threatening the future of the species. In 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the spurdog as vulnerable to extinction, citing population declines throughout the shark’s range. Stock assessments in the Northeast Atlantic, for example, reported a decline in total spurdog biomass of more than 95 percent. As a late-maturing species with a low reproductive capacity, spurdogs were deemed particularly susceptible to overfishing.

However, representatives from the Cornish Fish Producer’s Organization (CFPO) claim that issuing a zero TAC was not a realistic answer to the problem. The law states that spurdogs caught accidentally must be returned alive to the sea, but fishermen argue that it’s impossible to ensure that the sharks survive the catch-and-release process. A statement from the CFPO pointed out that while it may “be logical to think that a zero TAC for spurdog means a zero take or zero fishing mortality on the stock, the reality is that there are accidental by-catches of spurdog in many mixed fisheries, not only in Cornwall but around the UK.”

Inevitably, these catches lead to significant spurdog mortalities, despite the existence of the zero TAC. The law states that no spurdog may be kept, so dead sharks must be discarded at sea, which the CFPO has dubbed “a waste of a perfectly good food resource” with no real benefit for the spurdog or the fishermen. The CFPO resents the damage to fishing gear and the lost fishing time caused by having to untangle the dead sharks from their nets, especially as they believe that a recent explosion in accidental by-catch figures indicates that the species is no longer at risk from overfishing.

CFPO chief executive Paul Trebilcock told the Daily Express in a recent interview that “there is no question in my mind that spurdog populations are increasing throughout the Western Approaches and beyond. This perception is being echoed by fishermen across Europe.” In light of this, Cornish fishermen are calling for a nominal landing allowance that will allow them to keep and sell spurdogs killed as a result of accidental by-catch. However, there are concerns that if this amendment is approved, unscrupulous fishermen will use the loophole to start targeting spurdogs directly.

Furthermore, the apparent surge in spurdog catches does not necessarily prove that the Northeast Atlantic population has recovered from its recent decline. The IUCN claims that catch per unit effort (CPUE) cannot be used as an indicator of stock status for this species, due to the sharks’ tendency to aggregate at certain stages throughout their reproductive cycle. Because spurdogs travel together in dense groups, it is possible that large catches (like the recent one off the Isles of Scilly) may occur even though the population as a whole remains severely depleted.

Clearly, allowing spurdogs caught as by-catch to be kept and marketed is not a workable solution; firstly because of the impracticality of policing such a law, and secondly because it sets a dangerous precedent for other zero TAC species. Banning all commercial fishing is also impractical, unless residents of the EU and those countries that it exports to are willing to cut seafood from their diet.

Instead, minimizing the number of spurdogs caught is the most realistic way to ensure the continued protection of the species, and to limit time and resource wastage for local fishermen. With this goal in mind, CFPO is working with scientists and policy makers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on a pilot project that aims to help fishermen avoid areas with high densities of spurdogs.

The project will ask fishermen working in the Western Approaches and the Celtic Sea to report spurdog catches within predefined reporting grids. This data will be made available to local skippers, providing them with up-to-date information on spurdog movements, which they can then use to avoid areas in which the sharks are particularly prevalent. It is by no means a foolproof solution, as spurdogs are highly migratory. The existing EU law means that spurdogs killed as by-catch will still be discarded, but it will also demand that survivors are given a second chance.

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