How to Protect our Marine Ecosystems: Stop Finning, Ensure Fish Welfare

19 Jan 2023
Today, the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals chaired by MEP Tilly Metz (Greens/EFA, LU) discussed the next steps of the eighth successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “Stop Finning - Stop the Trade” and also proposals for the inclusion of fish welfare in the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

To start the meeting, MEP Caroline Roose (the Greens/EFA, BE) was appointed as new Vice-President of the Intergroup. MEP Roose, who is also a member of the PECH Committee, shared that she was honoured to take on the role and continue to strive for better lives for animals at the heart of her mandate.  

Nils Kluger, the spokesperson and coordinator of the “Stop Finning - Stop the Trade” ECI, discussed the motives to launch the ECI. Every year, between 63 and 273 million sharks die as a result of fishing. Sharks are hunted worldwide, primarily because of their fins, which are eaten especially in the Asian region as shark fin soup.

The fins are often collected in a cruel way by “finning”, whereby the sharks’ fins are cut off at sea whilst the animal may still be alive. The remainder of the shark gets thrown overboard since their meat is not part of European cuisine and therefore almost worthless. Without their fins, sharks sink to the seabed where they suffocate, bleed to death or are eaten alive. Keeping only their fins aboard also leaves space to collect more fins in one trip - which means huge numbers of sharks are killed. 

The steep erosion of shark populations across the globe has severe impacts, as many sharks are ‘apex predators’ and play an active role in maintaining healthy and productive marine ecosystems.

Since 2013, the “Fins Naturally Attached” regulation (n°605/2013) of the European Union prohibits the storage, transhipment and landing of all shark fins in EU waters and on all EU ships. The fins must remain naturally attached to the carcass when the ship is unloaded in port; they can then be separated from the animal and exported to Asia. Despite this regulation, export numbers have not dropped and the EU is one of the world's largest exporters of fins and a significant transit area for the global fin trade.

For this reason, and with over 1.1 million signatures in the ECI now submitted to the EU, Nils Kluger is calling on the EU to create a new trade regulation in addition to the Fins Naturally Attached Regulation that would effectively ban the EU shark fin trade, rendering the fins worthless in the EU. He states that this is the only way to efficiently protect sharks. The hearing by the Commission will occur on February 7, yet Nils Kluger regretted that currently only EU fisheries experts, rather than trade experts, have been included in the committee overseeing the file. 

MEP Caroline Roose (Greens/EFA, FR) added that an official hearing on finning is expected to take place in EP PECH at the end of March. She said she will push to reach a resolution and appeal to other political groups to support it.

Following a question from MEP Niels Fuglsang (S&D, DK), Nils Kluger specified that out of 500 shark species, 167 are endangered. He also added that high seas shark species - arguably the most crucial shark species for the ecosystem - have seen a drop in population size of 95% in the last 40 years.

MEP Tilly Metz (Greens/EFA, LU) explained that the Intergroup will closely follow the upcoming procedures and will help in supporting the initiative, as such a law would set a precedent and represent a major contribution for a better conservation of sharks - not only in the EU but globally.  

The subsequent presentation was dedicated to the PECH INI “Draft Report on the state of play in the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy and future perspectives”, led by MEP Gabriel Mato (EPP, ES), rapporteur, and scheduled to be discussed during the next PECH Committee meeting on January 23, after which the deadline for amendments will be set up.

Douglas Waley, Fish Welfare Senior Programme Leader at Eurogroup for Animals, presented proposals for the inclusion of fish welfare-related concerns in this draft report. He first recalled that, despite Article 13 of the TFEU requiring that fishery policy shall pay full regard to animal welfare, to date, animal welfare has been absent from the CFP, only appearing very briefly in its recital 16. He then indicated that on the vast majority of the vessels, fish are still being exhausted, crushed and asphyxiated in fishing gear and on boats; they are being processed or iced alive, or left to asphyxiate in air. 

To illustrate this, he shared a video of an undercover investigation by Soko Tierschutz on the “invisible slaughter on our seas”.

He nevertheless highlighted that the fisheries sector is not uniquely difficult, and that progress is possible and has already been evidenced with, for instance, the introduction of pumps on many boats to pump the fish onboard in water, which is a huge improvement on crushing and asphyxiating fish through hauling nets. However, such improvements are made on a voluntary basis and remain rare. Hence, MEP Mato’s INI draft report on the CFP - which assesses the functioning of the current CFP and highlights emerging trends - should call for the taking into account of animal welfare in the CFP.

MEP Tilly Metz (Greens/EFA, LU) noted the importance of campaigns such as Rethink Fish in empowering the consumer on aquatic animal sentience and the suffering of fish.

MEP Caroline Roose (Greens/EFA) confirmed that animal welfare is absent in terms of fisheries and that despite regular requests to the PECH Committee, hearings on welfare of aquatic animals are very difficult to obtain. There is no reason for the fisheries sector to be so behind on this issue, as a fish is an animal like any other.  

MEP Niels Fuglsang (S&D, DK) admitted to having previously shared the belief that fish are less sentient and prone to suffering in capture and slaughter than other animals. He asked what positive welfare in fisheries could look like. 

Douglas Waley replied that the capture and slaughter process should be as fast as possible. Pole and line caught fish such as tuna, caught one at a time and then killed fast and effectively, can be considered the highest welfare fishing. In terms of trawling or seine netting, adaptations can also improve welfare outcomes by, for instance, reducing the length of time the net is in the water, reducing the speed of towing and reducing the speed at which fish are removed from the water to avoid pressure shock, etc. He noted that welfare considerations have been entirely absent from fisheries discussions.

More details can be found in Eurogroup for Animals’ Policy Briefings on “A sustainable common fisheries policy to meet the EU’s objectives” and “Handle with care. Lessen the suffering of the fish in EU wild capture fisheries”.

The next meeting of the Intergroup will take place on February 16, 2023.