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European Citizens´ Initiative Forum

Anatomy of a miracle: how the last 20 days of the Stop Finning EU campaign became a gamechanger

Updated on: 01/09/2022

Having started in 2020, our European citizens’ initiative ran promptly into the pandemic. This was a heavy blow for our Stop-Finning-EU movement. Despite all our busy work, 20 days before the formal end we stood at ‘only’ 480,000 votes (instead of the 1 million needed) – what an emotional rollercoaster! Pressed for time and short on signatures, we managed to launch a campaign that turned out to be our game changer. Read here how we secured the active support of social media stars that brought us above 1 million votes to make our dream come true!  

You wouldn’t believe it: In the year 2022 it is still legal in the EU to cut off and trade shark fins. This brutal practice is called “finning”. At the beginning, only a small team of about 20 people decided to tackle this issue and even go beyond: find a legally binding format to do so. This is why this campaign has been set up as a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). An ECI requires a minimum of 1 million votes across Europe (and at least seven countries have to reach their national threshold) to force the European Commission to deal with the demand.  

We started our campaign in early 2020 and guess what: we just ran into the pandemic! This meant for us that we didn’t have any clue how things might go on. We had to accept that the usual campaign street work would be very limited or would have to be skipped completely. Our teams couldn’t meet in person, and everything had to be organised via video conferences. The same applied to fundraising as well as building up our network of supporters.

However, we succeeded to win well-known NGO Sea Shepherd as our partner from the beginning! They provided us with expertise, financial support and helped to advise our social media campaign. Looking for a strong partner like this is what we would recommend to everyone: build up a supporter’s network before you even kick-off your initiative. Nothing will work without partners!

Scuba Diver with Shark Fins

The aftermath of Shark Finning 

Another challenge was reaching people where they were: at home. It was a challenge to reach out to people as the pandemic was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Saving sharks was therefore not at all a priority for people at this time.

We spent almost two years on gathering signatures. Successful tools that worked for us during the pandemic were paid social media advertising (e.g. Facebook ads), networking via newsletters, WhatsApp or Instagram and to some extent street campaigning. We were able, despite the pandemic, to organise some very successful pan-European events in major cities.

Campaigning for Stop Finning Initiative

Campaigning of the StopFinningEU Initiative 

All this led to an increased awareness of our initiative! One needs to be patient - as well as confident…it’s not always easy.

And this is what it is all about: you need to achieve with all your busy work a relevant size and awareness of your Initiative! This has been fundamental in enabling us to activate our ‘game changer’. Imagine, 20 days before the formal expiration date of our ECI we have been sitting there with “only” 480,000 votes.

Or in other words: more than 50% of the votes needed to make us succeed were missing! Instead of giving up we decided to keep the pressure up and stress the urgency of our cause within our communication with people of higher reach on social media.  “We did not dare to dream about what happened next!”, said Katharina Loupal, Head of Social Media of StopFinningEU. 

In response to our request many influencers as well as organisations from all over the world jumped on board and asked their communities to use this moment in time to sign or share the initiative. This spread like wildfire and within days the signatures were exploding. Our supporters base grew and grew. Many “tiny” influencers and their communities as well as famous celebrities spread the word by showing pictures of the practice of finning or informative graphics (e.g. of the importance of sharks for marine ecosystems). Many artists such as Xavi Reñé supported us with their meaningful artworks.   

Artwork of Xavi Rene showing Shark Finning

Artwork of Xavi Reñé

In parallel, this dynamic was further supported by the achievement of historic milestones in marine conservation! To name the most relevant: the shark fishing ban introduced by the state of Hawaii, the court decision that temporarily prevents SHELL GROUP’s intention to use seismic blasting to explore deep ocean oil fields off the coast of South Africa and the UK Government’s ban on the import and export of detached shark fins and products containing them.

Artwork by Fresh 'n Salty, another of our passionate supporters, below shows how they engaged with their followers about it:

Artwork of Fresh 'n Salty

Artwork of Fresh 'n Salty 

Even setbacks in marine conservation such as plans to launch the world’s first octopus farm created awareness of the necessity to raise our efforts to save the oceans. It was the “perfect wave” to create a positive atmosphere for our struggle for the oceans!

Very important as well was the action of the famous marine biologist, film maker, environmentalist and influencer Robert Marc Lehmann. He started an appeal - not only within his community – but also sent a very emotional call for support to the entire German YouTube community. Based on personal relationships with other influencers he kicked of a tremendous wave of attention and support! These multiple reactions by well-known influencers over different platforms led to an ever-growing avalanche of signatures coming in. In peak times this even brought the EU signature collection servers down once. Especially during the last month of the campaign – within a really exciting “countdown atmosphere” – we succeeded to keep public attention continuously high.

Activist Robert Marc Lehmann with Shark that has been finned

Marine Biologist Robert Marc Lehmann with Shark that has been finned

Once the initiative hit its 50% mark, a magical domino effect happened: Our cause gained attention internationally, which resulted in bigger organisations jumping on board such as SeaLegacy/OnlyOneOceansNation and Oceana Europe.

Furthermore, new influencers used their voice for promotion as well. Just to mention a few:  Luisa NeubauerCarlos Bardem and Camille Etienne.

Moreover, existing supporters such as Ocean RamseyEli Roth and Hugo Clement increased the pressure and got further celebrities such as Alec Baldwin or Nina Dobrev on board too.

This started the turbo for our signature collection. At the peak the EU signature collection page went down – what a nightmare! European Commission’s IT-specialists dealt with the issue and luckily the page came back into service after six hours. Our tip: you need to watch this, make sure your signature page works!

The rest of the story is well known: our initiative managed to reach 1 million votes by January 18th around 8 pm – a fantastic and very emotional moment for all of us! Finally, by the end of January, StopFinningEU has been supported by more than 1,200,000 Europeans across 27 countries!

Here’s another tip: keep in mind that the national authorities of the 27 EU countries will validate every single signature you collected! Not all signatures will be validated by them due to formal or legal reasons. So you better have a buffer and keep collecting votes until the end, to be on the safe side!

But keep in mind that you have to watch in parallel that your initiative will reach the thresholds in at least seven Member States. By the end of our initiative, we were lucky to state that seventeen countries reached their threshold and that we were able to collect votes from all 27 EU member states. Some of the countries became real ‘power states’, e.g. Germany, France and Italy, but also Spain and Portugal. The majority of all German votes came in after Robert Marc Lehmann’s appeal, but still the German society is quite aware of environmental issues. The same applies to France that was on top of our “signature leader board” for a very long time. But as France is among the top 15 states in shark fishing – as well as Spain (number 2!) and Portugal (number 12) – the issue of finning also concerns the people there. Nobody likes being affected by such a problem and that’s one of the reasons why we were successful in these countries.  

We are now heading towards the next challenge [once the results of the validation of signatures are positive]: convincing the EU to engage seriously in stopping the bloody shark fin trade in the European Union. We are very grateful for any comments, advice or learning about your experiences how to make our lobby work a success!  

We would like to give a very warm thank you and deep gratitude to all our partners! Without their continuing support we would never have been successful!

“Seeing so many people fighting to stop finning makes me speechless.

Thank you very much!”

Nils Kluger

To hear more about how this initiative campaigned during the Pandemic from our spokesperson, Dr. Nils Kluger, check out the Webinar 'Campaigning During a Global Crisis: How to Make your Topic Feature when External Events Take Away Attention?'




Author Paul Zemke



Paul Zemke

Paul Zemke is a 17-year-old student and environmentalist with a strong passion for sharks and the oceans. He is part of the Core Team of StopFinningEU since November 2021. With his initiative “Paul4Sharks” Zemke became involved in marine conservation – by building up a knowledge base and community about marine ecosystems he works on achieving the active management of marine protection areas.


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