STATUS AZORES CAMPAIGN 2014 – “THEY ARE GETTING SMALLER AND SMALLER …”
On 23 September 2014
The SHARKPROJECT campaigners Friederike Kremer-Obrock and Meik Obrock have recently returned from the Azores – with shocking and depressing information:
“In the summer of 2012 SHARKPROJECT documented for the first time the shark landings in the port of Horta on the Azorean island of Faial. There blue and Mako sharks are still loaded onto overseas containers by Spanish fishermen, bound for the Spanish mainland. These fishermen have an official license to catch swordfish, but their “by-catch” is made up of up to 95% sharks.
OFFICIAL CIRCLES CONFIRM ON ENQUIRY IN HORTA THAT 2 800 TONS OF SHARK ARE LANDED EACH YEAR. WE OURSELVES CALCULATE FROM THE DATA AVAILABLE TO US THAT THE NUMBER COULD BE AS MUCH AS 5 000 TONS OF SHARK PER YEAR. IN THE ENTIRE NORTH ATLANTIC THE SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE LONG LINE FISHING BOATS CATCH AN ANNUAL AVERAGE OF 60 000 TONS OF BLUE AND MAKO SHARK (ICCAT).
In July 2013 a new EU law came into force banning the practice of finning once and for all. Since then the fishermen must land the sharks with their fins still attached. In a meeting with the local government on the Azores in July 2013 we were told that the new EU law would mean financial ruin for one third of Spanish fishermen. At the same time we were assured that there was no finning carried out on these boats and our attention was directed to the now more elaborate storage of the sharks in the chillers on board. Warnings of economic ruin seem to have been proved accurate: In 2014, according to our local sources, far fewer Spanish ships landed sharks in the port of Horta. The floating fish factories in the channel between Faial and Pico also appear to have disappeared.
This could be seen as a positive development. However, as so often, you have to look closer to get to the truth of the matter: the sharks, despite keeping their fins attached, are no less effectively stored. This begs the question as to why it is suddenly no longer lucrative for one third of all fishermen. On the contrary: did finning continue until July 2013 in order to export the much more expensive fins to Asia?
This year, then, as we (as always unannounced) did our research on site, we noticed the following: on 28 July 2014 the Manuel Alba, sailing under a Spanish flag with the home port of Vigo, landed about 90 tons of fish, predominantly shark, in the port of Horta. On the surface this appeared to be the same story as in the past. Once more it took 16 hours to transfer the load from the boat straight into the overseas container. When you look a bit closer, however, you find some significant differences. For one thing, the crew now consists mainly of Philippinos, who work on these boats for a pittance, supposedly to reduce the wage costs of the owner.
FOR ANOTHER THING, IT WAS SMALLER, YOUNGER SHARKS THAT WERE BEING UNLOADED. WHILE IN 2012 IT WAS MOSTLY ADULT BLUE SHARKS AND VERY LARGE MAKO SHARKS THAT WERE UNLOADED, NOW IT IS PRIMARILY YOUNG SPECIMENS HANGING FROM THE CRANE’S HOOK. THEY ARE GETTING SMALLER AND SMALLER …
Other than that, things have stayed the same: the “by-catch” is still 95% blue and Mako sharks. The hunting grounds are off the coast of Newfoundland (Canada). On enquiry we were told to our alarm that it’s no longer worth their while fishing in the waters around the Azores as the sharks there are too small, and there aren’t enough of them.
When you think that, according to current studies from the Marine Institute of the University of Lisbon, the breeding grounds for the blue sharks and various other protected species of shark such as the Hammerhead are located in the waters of the Azores, and that studies show that these animals go from the area around the Azores through the entire North Atlantic, then alarm bells should be ringing with all concerned.
The fact is that diving centres are also complaining about a significant drop in shark numbers, even in protected areas such as the Condor Banks. In 2011/12 divers on the Condor Banks would be surrounded by between five and ten sharks, and even over a dozen in peak times, whereas in 2013 this had dropped to an average of three to four sharks. In 2014 you were lucky to see a couple of these animals per dive, and usually just one. The diving centres are sounding the alarm, as dive tourism is a lucrative source of income for the islanders in the summer months.
TO DATE THE AZORES HAS BEEN CONSIDERED THE SHARK DIVING SPOT ON EUROPE’S DOORSTEP. IF THIS TREND CONTINUES, THIS ACCOLADE COULD BE A THING OF THE PAST.
The call made by SHARKPROJECT for a large marine protection area around the Azores, which would only be accessible to sustainable local fishing outfits, has not yet got anywhere. We are constantly being approached by local fishermen who say that something has to be done to stop the shark landings.
It must be pointed out that on the Azores there is virtually no “shark” to be found on the menus of local restaurants. Shark does indeed feature on the menu of some tourist restaurants: if the local fishermen catch the odd shark it doesn’t go to waste. But there is no specific local shark fishing on the Azores, with one exception: shark can be found in supermarkets throughout Sao Miguel. The local catch statistics indicate a very small increase in the shark catch during 2011-13, which is really quite insignificant compared to the overall figures. Only the local deep sea long line fishermen represent a serious problem for the eco-system of the Azores, which needs a long term solution.
We asked the local government in the person of the Regional Director of Maritime Affairs on Faial for an official position on the current situation, but we have yet to receive any answers to our questions.
Some very important questions remain unanswered: we would like to have known whether and to what extent the landings in the port of Horta have reduced since July 2013. We would also have been interested to know what the local government is planning to do about the extinction of the blue and Mako sharks. Does it even see these species as endangered? Does it consider that the tourism image of the Azores is damaged by the shark landings in Horta?
SHARKPROJECT DEMANDS THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A 200-NAUTICAL MILE PROTECTION ZONE AROUND THE AZORES – BUT HOW REALISTIC IS THIS FROM A POLITICAL POINT OF VIEW? AFTER ALL, THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THIS PROTECTION ZONE WILL HAPPEN EVENTUALLY AS IT IS THE ONLY WAY TO PROTECT THE NORTH ATLANTIC’S “SHARK NURSERY” IN THE LONG TERM.
In the meantime we have clarified the answer to the question about who actually eats the sharks that are landed in Europe’s ports: We do!
Demand for shark’s fins in Asia is (fortunately) in decline. The European demand for shark, on the other hand, is rising steadily. The shark’s fins that are exported to Asia only make up 5% of the body; 95% of the animal, namely the flesh, is not even exported outside Europe, but instead is consumed here, including in Germany.
We Europeans consume this shark meat in various forms: as fish and chips, as ‘conger eel’ or ‘rock salmon’, as ‘Schillerlocke’, as shark steaks in the Mongolian restaurant around the corner or (a fact that is often forgotten) as the basis of artificially produced fish products and dietary supplements.
ASIA HAS LONG CEASED TO BE OUR MAIN FOCUS OF ATTENTION – EUROPE IS INCREASINGLY TAKING CENTRE STAGE. IN SPAIN, ITALY, FRANCE, ENGLAND AND ROMANIA SHARK IS BEING EATEN MORE FREQUENTLY – AND THE SAME IS TRUE FOR US IN GERMANY.
A counter argument that needs to come into play here is that shark meat is highly contaminated with methyl mercury, and the same is true for swordfish and the popular tuna.
But back to the Azores one more time:
When it comes to its waters, the Azores continues to present an outward image of clean eco-tourism. The green islands have an increasingly stringent approach to waste separation. In front of every house in Flores there is a row of yellow, green, blue and black containers; a recycling plant is up and running. From 2016 there is an ambitious plan for the islands to be entirely reliant on renewable energy for their electricity. A large hydro-electric power station is already under construction.
However this is all in sharp contrast to the behaviour of inhabitants, especially when it comes to plastic consumption: plastic bags are given away freely in the supermarkets. You can sometimes count up to twenty individual plastic bags in a single supermarket trolley. And these bags don’t always find their way into sustainable recycling but all too often take a “short cut” into nature and the local waters. However, this should come to an end from 2015: plastic bags will be charged for, according to plans drawn up by the local government, so that this consumption will hopefully go down.
It just remains to hope that these environmental concerns will finally drop below the water line and into the seas around the Azores; that the local government will finally realise how important a healthy ocean is, both economically and ecologically. A consistent level of protection for the shark stocks of the Azores is essential for the entire eco-system of the North Atlantic.
IT IS FIVE TO 12, EVEN IF NOT EVERYONE HAS REALISED THAT YET.”
Pictures (c) SHARKPROJECT / Friederike Kremer-Obrock, Meik Obrock, Gerald Nowak, Anja Webersberger, Christine Gstöttner, Plos.One