Lax European Union policies play a leading role in depleting shark numbers not just in European waters but around the world, a report said on Wednesday.
Sharks are vital to the ecological balance of the oceans but, because of their slow growth rate and lengthy pregnancies, are also among the most vulnerable.
The Shark Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organizations dedicated to shark conservation, said not only did loopholes in EU regulations allow shark finning, but the few catch limits imposed were well above scientific recommendations.
"Europe is playing a lead role in the overfishing, waste and depletion of the world's sharks," the report said. "EU restrictions on shark finning remain among the weakest in the world and no overall plan to manage EU shark fisheries and restore depleted populations exists."
Shark finning -- slicing off a shark's fins for the growing Asian shark-fin soup market and discarding the body -- is banned by many countries which insist that bodies are landed with fins, the report said.
But it said EU rules allowed fins and bodies to be landed separately rendering the regulations "all but meaningless" and undermining finning bans on a global scale.
Species targeted by the finning trade include hammerheads, blues, makos, basking and dogfish, the Shark Alliance said.
Even those sharks that were taken for their meat were being hugely overfished, it added.
While top quality shark meat could fetch up to $4.50 per pound, fins were worth up to 70 times that, the report said.
Between them Spain, France, Britain and Portugal account for more than 80 percent of the European shark catch -- with Spain alone accounting for nearly half the EU total of 115,000 metric tons.
Elsewhere, large numbers of sharks not wanted for either fins or meat were being killed as so-called bycatch -- fish caught by mistake in the hunt for other species.
"Overall, numbers of sharks are declining with many now seriously depleted and some species already locally extinct," the report said.
To stop the slaughter, the Shark Alliance urged the EU to tighten its rules, make sure fins were landed with bodies and bring total catch limits for more of Europe's 130 species of shark and related rays based on scientific evidence.