Attempts to restrict trade in two threatened shark species through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have failed.
Delegates voted down EU proposals to limit trade in the spiny dogfish, sold in UK fish and chip shops as huss or rock salmon, and the porbeagle.
Some said it was an EU problem which the EU should solve.
A scheduled debate on protecting another shark species, the sawfish, was postponed.
Sharks reproduce relatively slowly and reach sexual maturity relatively late, which makes them especially prone to overfishing.
After European boats had depleted local porbeagle stocks during the last century, said Sarah Fowler from the World Conservation Union (IUCN), fishermen turned their attention to the North-West Atlantic.
“It took only six years to deplete that fishery; and it has not recovered,” she related.
This and other factors led to widespread support from bodies such as IUCN for the EU’s proposal to list porbeagles and spiny dogfish on Appendix 2, a bid which was endorsed by the CITES secretariat.
But the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) took a different view, concluding that neither species meets “the biological decline criteria for listing in CITES Appendix 2”.
It suggested that strengthening fisheries management was a better option.
Before the meeting began, FAO assistant director-general Ichiro Nomura had fired off a series of letters to CITES secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers protesting that their advice had been ignored.
This swung many delegations against the EU proposal. Others protested that the EU had not implemented protection measures in European waters where porbeagle stocks are at their lowest level.
“Restoration of the only stock that actually meets the biological criteria for listing cannot be accomplished through a CITES resolution,” said New Zealand delegate Pamela Mace, who had been part of the FAO’s expert assessment.
“It actually requires effective management at the local level.”
The EU is permitting its fishermen to catch 174 tonnes of porbeagle in the North Sea this year, but plans to establish a long-term regime for restoring shark stocks.
Both motions achieved a simple majority in favour, but not the two-thirds majority needed for a CITES listing, which left conservation groups dismayed.
“It implies that the serial depletion drive by international trade will continue,” said Sonja Fordham, policy director for the Shark Alliance.
“There are very few places which have management plans in place, and fisheries will develop to meet the demand.”
In view of the closeness of the votes, the EU is likely to re-introduce both motions on the final day of the meeting, Friday 15 June, when all decisions can be reviewed.
Japan is also likely to re-introduce its bid to have CITES experts re-assess whale stocks, which was narrowly defeated on Wednesday.