Emre Küpcük is a student of European Studies at Maastricht University and the Chief Communications Officer of Bridge Europe. He focuses on the connection of human development to conservation and biodiversity, through building 'bridges' on sensitive topics with his organization.
The latest European Citizens’ Initiative that made headlines and managed to pass over one million signatures was the “Stop Finning - Stop the Trade” Initiative. The initiative has the aim to legally ban the trade of shark fins in Europe. However, up until the rise of the initiative and its push on social media platforms such as Instagram, the issue was barely recognised and only was a problem European conservationists, and environmentalists knew of, not European citizens. The factuality of the latter points to a larger problem within the EU, which is its lack of attentiveness and transparency when it comes to its species protection and nature protection laws.
Even though officially the removal of shark fins on board of EU vessels and in EU waters is prohibited, it is still legal within the EU to catch sharks with their fins still attached. The European Union is one of Asia’s major exporters of fins and shamefully acts as a transit hub for the global fin trade.
The IUCN lists 38 shark species in European waters, out of which only 2 are listed as Least Concern, one of which lives 200m below sea level and another which is not at all an apex predator.
The importance of apex predators is multi-faceted. First, they maintain species below them through removing the sick, weak and the dead. Taking sharks out of European ecosystems would increase larger predatory fish populations and directly reduce the number of herbivorous fish. This would lead to the expansion of micro algae and as a result corals would begin to die out. Lastly, such a chain reaction would close down fisheries around Europe and threaten a multibillion-euro sector with over 160,000 jobs EU-wide.
In short, the removal of sharks as apex predators from ecosystems leads to economic and systematic destruction for not only sea life but human life as well. Despite these scientific facts and arguments, all shark populations in European waters, especially the Mediterranean, are decreasing.
Sharks and Climate Change
Sharks help balance the ecosystem, their disappearance would lead to an explosion of fish populations, this would lead to a shortage of other marine resources. As plankton, algae, and other food sources die off, the fish and corals would eventually follow suit, along with marine mammals, leading to a collapse of the entire marine ecosystem.
If the oceans die out, climate change as a result will only worsen. This is why sharks are especially important to keep alive and protect. Removing apex predators from ecosystems has time and time again shown catastrophic change for the environment and climate change.
Real life examples of apex predator loss and consequent havoc are the extinction of the Caspian tiger (2003), the caucasian leopard (1950s) extinct in Southern Europe and maybe the most famous extinction of wolves from European forests by the 1970s due to overhunting and habitat loss.
This has resulted in a huge surge in prey animal numbers like the wild boar. Today there is an estimated 10 million wild boar in the EU and they cause €100 million in crop damage annually in Italy alone.
The European Union, despite having considerable aims and goals about green energy, the environment and sustainability, time and time again has proven that it cares little to null about anything other than human well-being and economy within its borders and has no regard for any other living organisms. The most recent example of this neglect is the 2014 reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, which was then deemed to be significantly “greener” by the European Parliament. Yet, it left so many exemptions for farmers to not implement policies such as the limits on the use of pesticides and the protection of wild animals on farm areas that at the end the new CAP reforms amounted to nothing, and a year following the reforms, 36 species went extinct within borders of the EU.
This is worrying as from the conservationist point of view, the EU and its members cannot be trusted with goals and aims which have to do with nature, sustainability and the environment, as long as there are economic gains to be made.
The European Union and its members’ stolidness when it comes to species protection is not only an issue for conservation, but it is also a shot in the foot for the EU’s own green goals.
Whether this is due to the lack of conservationists and naturalist scientist working in the Joint Research Centre of the EU, or wilful ignorance is up for further discussion. However, the fact that the citizens of the EU had to bring up the topic of banning shark fin trade to change the dire status quo has become a stain on the EU’s track record as a normative actor in climate and environment politics.
Only time will tell whether the EU chooses short-term monetary gain from shark fins or the will of its citizens. Hopefully moving forward, the EU Citizen Initiatives will also be used to save and protect even more species and help save the biodiversity of the continent for a better and greener future.