“A view of approximately 30 thousand shark fins left out to dry on top of a roof top in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town district, Hong Kong, China, 02 January 2013. Reports state that shark fin traders have taken to drying freshly sliced fins from sharks on roof tops in the city, since a public outcry in 2010 over them drying the fins on public sidewalks forced them to move the trade out of sight.” www.oceandefenderhawaii.com
Shark populations face the threat of extinction in every part of the world primarily due to overfishing driven by the high demand for shark fins. All 14 shark species most prevalent in the shark fin trade are now at risk of extinction.
The media endlessly demonizes sharks and overplays their dangers. Zero people were killed in the United States by a shark in 2011, while only 10 people in the United States have been killed by a shark in the last decade. More people, 16, died in the United States on the beach by tunnelling in the sand and having it collapse on them than were killed by shark attack, 12, from 1990 to 2006.
The combination of overfishing and overwhelming fear from most humans (even ocean goers) means little empathy and thus little protection for shark species, event though they play crucial parts in the balance of oceanic ecosystems.
What is shark finning?
Shark finning is the practice of removing the sharks fins after it has been caught in a fishery. The fins are kept and the body of the shark is typically returned to the sea, often while the shark is still alive. Unable to swim or pass water across its gills, the shark dies from suffocation, bloodloss or predation by other species. This is an incredibly improvident practice because 95% of the carcass, a source of protein, is wasted. Only the fins are kept because shark fins are now among the most expensive seafood items in the world with retail values of over US$ 400 per kilogram (Clarke 2004). The value of the shark fin is reportedly 20 to 250 times the value of the meat by weight (Vannucinni 1999). Therefore, it is economically beneficial to use the limited space on a vessel to store a high-priced commodity such as fins than it is to fill it with the low-priced meat of the sharks’ body.
The shark fin trade is the movement of the shark fins from the fishermen to the market to the consumer. More than half the world’s trade in shark fin goes through Hong Kong and in 2008, the world’s top exporters of shark fins (frozen and dried) to Hong Kong were Spain, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, and United Arab Emirates (Oceana 2010). Imports of fins in Hong Kong have been growing at 6% per annum (Clarke 2004).
The problem with finning
The problem with the practice of finning and in the trade of shark fins is that it has placed immense pressure on vulnerable populations, causing catastrophic declines which should be a matter of urgent global conservation concern (Abercrombie et al. 2005; Shivji et al. 2005; Dulvy et al. 2008).
“The IUCN Shark Specialist Group considers that shark finning threatens many shark stocks, the stability of marine ecosystems, sustainable traditional fisheries, food security and socio-economically important recreational fisheries”. ~SSG Finning Position Statement, May 2003
Shark finning is largely unmonitored and unreported so the true scale of the fishery is unknown. Finning results in landings of just fins or the trunk of the sharks without fins, making species-specific identification, which is imperative for sound management, very difficult. Finning is an indiscriminant act, targeting any species, size or sex of shark, also a trait of the unmanaged fishery. Genetic analysis proves that even fins from one of the most protected shark species in the world, the great white shark, are appearing in shark fin markets (Shivji et al 2005). Finning occurs in protected areas and areas with a history of strong fishery management. The genetic evidence also shows that some of these fins originated from one of the most highly regulated fisheries in the world – the US Atlantic fishery (Shivji et al. 2005). The U.S. has strict laws prohibiting shark finning, including a fins-attached landing requirement. Nevertheless, independent monitors of U.S. fishing fleets report witnessing fisheries violations, including shark-finning (taking fins off live sharks and then discarding the mutilated animal), marine pollution, and shooting seabirds (Stade 2011).
Problems with the fin trade
The shark fin trade exists in one form or another in most places worldwide, impacting ecosystems, fisheries, and existing and potential tourism. Records indicating the accurate number of fins, or sharks they come from, are not readily available for most countries. The non-existent or incomplete management plans have resulted in vague definitions for the finning industry and unclear export/import/customs categories or commodity codes for the fins as a product.
Some individual nations’ shark landing data does not match up with Hong Kong fin import data, therefore tens of millions of sharks are ‘missing’ from the landings data of many nations but appearing in Hong Kong. This may be due to under-reporting but also from the fact that fishing crews are just finning the sharks and discarding the bodies at sea.
What’s being done about the unsustainable practice of finning?
This unsustainable practice is being addressed in several ways: finning bans, trade bans/restrictions, and shark sanctuaries.
Finning is illegal in several countries, requiring the fins be attached to the bodies of the shark or vessels’ landings must meet a certain ratio of fin weight to body weight that depends on the species and whether or not the carcass has been ‘dressed’. Despite attempts to regulate the practice, illegal shark finning still occurs and the capacity for enforcement in many countries is lacking. Finning has been reported in areas such as the Revillagigedos Islands, the Cocos Islands, the Marshall Islands, Costa Rica and Australia. Banning the practice of finning is a start but not a solution to the problem. Finning bans are difficult to enforce, especially on the high seas.
A ban on the trade of fins, however, is a complimentary approach that prohibits the possession, sale, offering for sale, or distribution of shark fins or products. U.S. states and territories are recognizing the importance of this issue with bills passed in the Northern Marian Islands, Guam, Washington state, Oregon, Hawaii, and many more in the works. Many shark fin trade bans have simplified and reduced the cost of enforcement. The specific language may be different for each piece of legislation but New trade bans that have been recently enacted have used similar language; some also include other elasmobranchs such as manta rays.
Shark sanctuaries are marine areas where sharks are fully protected by strong laws and enforcement and with the support and cooperation of local communities. Sanctuaries are viable because they produce tangible economic benefits to local populations that provide sustainable financed enforcement by focusing on marine tourism. Shark sanctuaries have been declared in areas such as Raja Ampat, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, the Bahamas and Palau.
Shark Savers is a great organization started by divers witnessing the drastic decline of shark populations. Like surfers, divers are metaphorical canaries in the coal mine, able to witness subtle changes in the ocean’s ecosystemic balance because of the amount of time they spend in the ocean.