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Uncontrolled Shark Fishing in the Atlantic

Volume 644: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered uncontrolled shark fishing in the Atlantic high seas.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. When I secured this debate, it raised a few eyebrows. Colleagues asked why I had chosen this issue. I might already have a bit of a reputation in this place for campaigning on things that are cute and cuddly, such as domestic pets, so why on earth sharks? Since first seeing the movie “Jaws” at the age of four, I have genuinely been inspired and fascinated by sharks. By the way, that movie celebrates its 43rd anniversary this year.

I am not sure whether this counts as declaring an interest, but I should state that after a birthday present from my office last year, I adopted a shiver of great white sharks through the Shark Trust. The Shark Trust is one of many organisations based in the UK and beyond that do excellent work on shark conservation all over the world. The adoption certificate scheme, which is helping to fund vital research and population monitoring around the Farallon Islands off the coast of California, is just one example of that.

Sharks are not just found in far-flung waters. In fact, 21 species of shark live in British waters, and at least 11 species of deep-water shark can be found here, too. Lest that discourage anyone from spending this glorious summer at the British seaside, I stress that very few species of shark are potentially dangerous to humans, and none of them has ever been reported in British waters. In fact, there has not been a fatal shark attack in British waters in more than 80 years. The truth is that sharks are not the aggressive, man-eating monsters of movies such as “Jaws”, “Open Water” or “Sharknado”. Sharks are essential to the health of our oceanic ecosystems, and they are a valuable part of our marine life. We must not allow the Hollywood stereotype that seeks to stir up misplaced fear to get in the way of necessary conservation efforts securing the long-term future of these remarkable and wonderful animals.

Sharks play a crucial role in the ecosystems of every ocean on Earth. They are key, for example, to maintaining coral reefs. Without sharks keeping the predatory fish population in check, there would be fewer smaller fish eating the algae that would otherwise compete with and kill the coral reef. Studies have shown that declining shark populations are already having a disastrous effect on coral reefs, which themselves are deeply important to the global ecosystem. Further effects of shark extinction would include algae suffocating the ocean, population collapse among species such as scallops, whose predators are normally the sharks’ prey, and disruption to the planet’s carbon cycle.

Sadly, more than 50% of shark species in British waters are now under threat. Take the angel shark, which was once common but is now critically endangered. It is only thanks to the tireless work of groups such as the Shark Trust that the angel shark is now one of the best protected sharks in the north-east Atlantic.

Let there be no doubt that this is an international issue, as well as a domestic one. All over the world, in every ocean, various species of sharks face a serious existential threat. The biggest contributor to that threat is overfishing. Every year, millions of sharks are caught and landed, even as shark numbers continue to dwindle across a range of species. Overfishing is fuelled by demand for a whole host of shark products, including, perhaps most infamously, their fins, which are used in parts of Asia for shark fin soup. The practice of shark finning—cutting the fins off a live shark, which is often then left to suffocate to death—is truly barbaric, and I am glad that action to change attitudes in China has led to sales of shark fin dropping by up to 70% in that country in recent years.

That progress is just one glimmer of light amid a wider and growing problem. Demand for shark meat already far outstrips demand for fins and is continuing to grow. Other shark products in demand include: shark liver oil, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry; shark cartilage, which is used as a so-called alternative medicine; and shark teeth, which are used as jewellery. The overfishing of sharks is not just about demand for shark products. Shortfin mako sharks can be found in British waters and are believed to be the fastest species of shark in the world. Bycatch of these sharks is leading to a serious decline in their population. It is believed to be necessary to reduce the north Atlantic mako catch to zero if we are to have even half a chance of allowing the population in those waters to recover over the next two decades. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has thus far failed to grant prohibited status to shortfin makos, even though that species has been found to be exceptionally vulnerable to ICCAT fisheries.

I understand that the International Union for Conservation of Nature classes sharks simply as “vulnerable”. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a result of the demand he is clearly pointing out, further action is required to afford greater protection to all the shark species that inhabit UK and Scottish waters and beyond?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree. Sharks are not just vulnerable; as I have tried to articulate, they face an existential threat. From the movies we watch, the programmes we see and popular culture, we have a misplaced fear of sharks, but it has been clear over the decades that sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them. It is the same story all over the world.

The protections that are in place are inadequate, poorly enforced and nowhere near what is needed to guarantee sustainability. ICCAT’s ban on shark finning, for example, which is based on a fin-to-carcass ratio limit, is weak and difficult to enforce. Its replacement with a wider ban on removing shark fins at sea, which was supported by the vast majority of ICCAT parties in attendance in 2016, would be more than welcome. I therefore hope that the UK Government will redouble their efforts to promote sustainable fisheries at an international level and make the conservation of shark species a key priority. I am thankful that the UK Government were a strong advocate of prohibiting shortfin mako landings ahead of the annual ICCAT meeting in 2017, for example. I hope that they keep the pressure up in that area.

As the UK becomes an independent coastal nation with a large exclusive economic zone, we have a great opportunity to become a global voice for a precautionary approach to international fisheries regulations. We have seen the devastating effects of overfishing on ecosystems and human communities. It should be clear that the risks of more robust regulations are greatly outweighed by the risks of allowing overfishing, especially of sharks, to continue unabated.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has brought forward this issue for discussion, particularly as someone who has swum with sharks around the world, including off the Minister’s coast in Cornwall, where I have swum with larger sharks. Is my hon. Friend aware that 86% of all the sharks landed in the EU are landed in the Atlantic? Brexit offers us a great opportunity not only to ensure that the species continue to survive, but to create an environment in which they will prosper.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. I am hugely jealous of his having been able to swim with sharks off the coast of Cornwall—it is still on my bucket list to go cage diving with a great white. I know that many campaigners, including the Shark Trust, have been actively trying to engage with the European Union, often to no avail. He is right that when we take back those powers we will be able to do things on our own terms, and do more for conservation, not less.

I hope that the UK Government will press for common-sense reforms that eliminate the loopholes and, most importantly, make the regulations enforceable. On paper, a regulation can be as strict as we want it to be, but the important thing is putting it into practice. It is a matter of regulating smarter as much as regulating harder. I hope that after we leave the common fisheries policy and take back control of our waters, the UK Government will practise what they preach and act to preserve shark populations around the British coastline. We know that the EU’s record in this area has been less than stellar on occasion. After all, Spain and Portugal account for around three fifths of all shortfin mako catches, and Spain, Portugal and France are all among the top 20 shark fishing nations. We should take Brexit as a chance to examine what we can do better.

Overfishing might be the largest threat to shark populations, but it is not the only threat. Sharks need a healthy habitat to thrive in, so ocean pollution and habitat destruction are also significant contributors to the decline in shark populations. Microplastics, for example, are especially dangerous to sharks that are filter feeders, such as whale sharks, megamouth sharks and basking sharks. I am therefore really glad that the UK Government have introduced a ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads, and I hope that will set an example to the rest of the world to follow as soon as possible.

The need for the UK Government not only to legislate domestically but to use their diplomatic voice for action on microplastics and ocean pollution in general cannot be overstated. Our ocean environments are interconnected all over the world, and plastic waste does not respect borders. The same goes for action to curb climate change and preserve the temperature of our ocean waters from damaging, radical change. Both the UK and Scottish Governments have been world leaders on reducing emissions, but more global action is needed if we are to see real progress in conserving shark populations, even here in our own waters.

I hope that I have helped to generate some more sympathy for sharks today. I hope that I have demonstrated their vital role in the marine environment, both in British waters and in all the world’s oceans, and have explained why we are all invested in securing their future. “Blue Planet II” has contributed greatly to putting marine conservation at the top of the agenda in this country. I hope that the UK Government will now act to ensure that it is at the top of the agenda all around the world, and that that leads to positive and lasting change for the planet’s many endangered shark species.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) on securing this timely debate. I note that he has had a busy couple of days; earlier today he was in the Chamber introducing his ten-minute rule Bill on pet theft, and he was in the debate when I was in Westminster Hall yesterday.

This is an important debate. My hon. Friend is right that it is wrong to vilify sharks. The truth is that these are wonderful species, and the UK Government have always been a leading and vocal voice for the conservation and protection of our oceans and seas, and of sharks. Whether on fighting to protect whales and dolphins from commercial hunting, safeguarding the world’s coral reefs, or driving through new rules to tackle shark finning by requiring all sharks to be landed with their fins still naturally attached to their body, the UK has an impressive track record.

Sharks are one of the most iconic and captivating animals in our seas. They have been on our planet for at least 400 million years, making them one of the oldest vertebrate groups alive. They are a vital part of our ecosystem. They play an important role in maintaining marine biodiversity, and support the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Yet sharks face a number of threats globally, from loss of habitat to climate change. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out—this is the focus of today’s debate—there is no bigger threat than that of unsustainable and poorly regulated fisheries. That is why the UK Government have continued to champion the conservation and management of sharks wherever they are fished.

We do not oppose the capture of sharks in commercial fisheries, but we want to ensure that those fisheries are sustainable, that trade is controlled and that effective conservation measures are in place. That is why the UK focuses its efforts within the international arena, driving forward global improvements through the regional fisheries management organisations, the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and the convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals.

Data on global catches of sharks is poor, meaning that we simply do not know enough about the magnitude of fishing. It is estimated that between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed each year in the world’s commercial fisheries. In 2014, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that, on average, 520,000 tonnes of sharks are landed globally each year, but some experts believe that landings could be three to four times higher.

Looking closer to home, EU member state vessels are responsible for a significant proportion of the catch of pelagic sharks globally each year, mainly blue shark and the shortfin mako shark taken in the high seas. The majority of those are taken by longliners targeting tuna and swordfish in the Atlantic ocean. Although not their target catch, those species represent an important and profitable by-catch to those industries.

The UK is not a big player in those fisheries at all. We have a very small longline fishing fleet operating in the Atlantic ocean that, in 2016, represented less than 1% of the total catch of the sharks. However, that does not stop us having a voice in the matter. We are a strong and vocal proponent for bringing an end to uncontrolled shark fishing thorough the establishment of scientifically justified catch limits, which are essential in preventing overfishing and avoiding stock collapse.

I want to say a little about the regional fisheries management organisations, because it is through these RFMOs that we are trying to introduce catch limits. One of the most important RFMOs operating in the Atlantic ocean is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Over recent years we have worked very closely with both the EU and civil society organisations to ensure that a strong position is adopted in ICCAT. That has been challenging at times, given that several EU member states are major shark catchers in the region. However, in 2016 we were finally successful in driving through an unprecedented change that established catch limits for the north Atlantic blue shark stock. That was a milestone in managing shark fisheries in the high seas, and set a strong and important precedent. We are now working hard to extend that measure to the southern stock, where there remains some resistance.

At the most recent meeting of ICCAT in November 2017, we were again successful in increasing protection for sharks. Although we managed to persuade the EU to propose a limit on catches for shortfin mako—one of the species mentioned by my hon. Friend—sadly its adoption was eventually blocked by other parties. However, we did not give up. Instead, we helped to secure a compromise, introducing new rules requiring any live shortfin mako caught from the northern stock to be returned unharmed. Again, that represents an important step forward in strengthening the protection of sharks within the RFMOs, but there is much further to go, particularly when it comes to the shortfin mako, and we will not give up our position in future meetings.

We also continue to build pressure to adopt a “fins naturally attached” approach, with no exceptions, following our success to secure the adoption of that policy within the EU. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South pointed out, one of the most shameful practices is that of cutting the fins off a shark before tossing the live shark back into the water. We have now secured almost globally the position that that is illegal. The difficulty is often around enforcement. The position that the UK has advocated for many years now, with some success, is requiring fins to be landed with the sharks so that there can be no doubt that the practice has not taken place.

We will keep working with civil society organisations to develop that policy further. My hon. Friend mentioned the work of some organisations in this area, notably the Shark Trust. I pay tribute to its work. In 2014 it launched its “No Limits? No Future!” campaign and report. I attended the launch, a year into being in post as Minister. It has continued to make the case for shark conservation and we have continued to support it. We will also continue to work with other EU member states, even after we have left the EU, and with other contracting parties, to build on our successes to date and to press home our sustainability principles, and not just within ICCAT but in all the other RFMOs where we have a presence, notably the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission—we are an active participant by virtue of our Indian ocean territories.

Looking at the wider picture, there is more to shark protection than just high seas management through the RFMOs. We need to look at some of the wider environmental implications. At the start of this year the Government published our 25-year environment plan, which sets a clear commitment to future sustainable fisheries management and our marine environment. Domestic fisheries policy provides an important framework for the protection and management of a number of commercially important shark species. The current common fisheries policy includes landing prohibitions for angel shark, basking shark, white shark, spurdog and porbeagle shark. As we consider future fisheries policy on leaving the European Union, I give the undertaking that we will continue to argue for fishing within sustainable limits and promote the protection of vulnerable shark species.

There are other regional agreements, such as the convention on migratory species and OSPAR, that provide important platforms for co-ordinated conservation action. The UK continues to support efforts within those forums to implement protection that complements fisheries management within the RFMOs. For example, in 2017 the UK was instrumental in securing the listing of blue shark, dusky shark and angel shark on the CMS.

Of course, the final part of the puzzle is trade. Demand for shark products can drive unsustainable practices, which is why we are an active participant in CITES and will continue to be after leaving the EU. On leaving the EU, the UK will become a member of all those organisations and will be able to build coalitions of the willing in its own right. At the previous two CITES meetings in 2013 and 2016, the UK was heavily involved in successfully securing stricter trade measures for shark, including for oceanic whitetip shark, hammerhead shark, thresher shark and porbeagle shark. The UK Government are also fully committed to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. That is why we are committed to a new UN treaty, negotiations on which will commence in September.

Good ocean governance is vital, not only for conservation, but to ensure that the UK benefits from the blue economy. The Foreign Secretary announced that the UK Government will develop an international oceans strategy to ensure that all parts of the Government work together to deliver effective conservation and sustainable economic growth.

Looking ahead to our departure from the European Union—these days, no debate on Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issues is complete without considering the impact of leaving the European Union—there is a great deal that we can be proud of in what we have achieved to date. The UK has been absolutely at the forefront of promoting improved regulation of shark fishing, both in the Atlantic and beyond, and we will continue to do that. We currently play a leading role in shaping the European Union’s approach, but there are some countries that have commercial interests in shark fishing, and that can often blunt our approach, because we have to sign up to a collective EU position.

There is still much more that we can do to end uncontrolled fishing on the high seas. Our exit from the EU, while not dispensing with the need to build coalitions with EU countries, will enable us to build coalitions with other countries, to project our voice in other parts of the world where we have overseas territories and marine protected areas, and to ensure that we can still continue to deliver wildlife conservation and the conservation of sharks.

This has been a fascinating debate. My hon. Friend has raised an important issue that is not debated enough in Parliament. I hope that I have been able to reassure him that the Government take such issues very seriously and are world leaders in promoting shark conservation.

Question put and agreed to.