Shark finning is the practice of removing a shark’s fins when it is still alive. The fins are mainly sold for use in shark fin soup, an East Asian dish synonymous with luxury and celebration. In reality, the practice of shark finning leaves nothing to celebrate.
Shark Finning By Numbers
- 72 million sharks are killed annually for shark fin soup
- Almost 60% of sharks are threatened due to overexploitation
- A bowl of shark fin soup costs up to $100 USD
The Shark Fin Trade
The act of cutting shark fins and discarding the rest of the shark back into the ocean is known as shark finning. Many countries have made this act illegal. The fins of a shark are usually discarded into the sea after they have been removed. The shark sinks to the ocean floor without its fins, suffocates or bleeds to death. The carcasses are usually discarded because they take up so much space that could otherwise be used to store more valuable fins. The shark’s body may be rescued and carried back to be eaten in rural communities. Shark meat, on the other hand, contains dangerously high levels of mercury, which can cause neurological and behavioral problems, posing a significant health risk.
Around the world, shark finning is largely unmanaged, unmonitored, and uncontrolled. Surprisingly, the practice is becoming more popular as demand in East Asia grows. In Hong Kong, where the sale and consumption of shark fins is still legal, the demand for shark fins is especially high. Even though shark finning is illegal in Europe, about 3,500 tons of shark fins are exported every year. Legal loopholes in the United Kingdom enable the shark finning trade to continue. Travelers can legally bring 20 kg of shark fins into the country in their personal luggage for “personal use” without having to report it. Twenty kilograms is roughly equal to seven dead sharks.
Shark finning is common, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Shark Specialist Group, and the rapidly growing and largely unregulated shark fin trade poses one of the most important threats to shark populations worldwide. The global value of the shark fin trade is estimated to be between US$540 million and US$1.2 billion (2007). Shark fins are among the most costly seafood products, costing up to $400 per kilogram. Some buyers consider the whale shark and the basking shark as trophy animals in the United States, where finning is banned, and pay $10,000 to $20,000 for a fin.
Aside from the brutality of the procedure, the pace at which these apex predators are being eliminated from marine habitats is unsustainable. Sharks play an important role in maintaining healthy marine environments by balancing food chains and regulating prey populations. Sharks, in essence, maintain a stable prey population by focusing on sick or wounded individuals.
This aids in disease prevention and ensures that only the healthiest fish reproduce. Finally, sharks ensure that environments such as seagrass meadows are not overgrazed by monitoring prey populations. Many shark species, including the scalloped hammerhead and the smooth hammerhead, are reportedly endangered as a result of shark finning. The fact that sharks take several years to reach sexual maturity adds to the concern, as low reproductive rates make repopulation difficult.
Finally, the shark fishing populations continue to be exploited, sometimes going unnoticed in this cruel trade. Since many fishermen are poor, shark finning is an appealing way for them to eat, clothe, and educate their families. A single shark fin may often provide a fisherman with more revenue than a year’s worth of catching and selling small fish species. Even then, the fishermen would be abused and paid a fraction of the shark fin’s true value. For example, each man will earn the equivalent of $70 USD on a two-week trip, with five crew catching more than 50 sharks.
The Impact On Sharks and The Ecosystem
According to some estimates, 26 to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins per year. The annual median from 1996 to 2000 was 38 million, nearly four times the amount estimated by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), but significantly lower than many conservationists’ figures. The global shark capture in 2012 was estimated to be 100 million.
Sharks have a K-selection life history, which means they develop slowly, reach maturity at a larger size and later age, and reproduce infrequently. These characteristics make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing techniques, like shark finning. Recent research suggests that changes in apex predator abundance can have a cascading effect on a number of ecological processes.
Over the last 50 years, the population of certain shark species has decreased by as much as 80%. Some groups say that shark fishing or bycatch (unintentional capture of species by other fisheries) is to blame for the loss of some species’ populations, and that the fin market has little effect – bycatch accounts for an estimated 50% of all sharks captured. Others say that the decline is due to a drop in the demand for shark fin soup.
Sharks are apex predators with far-reaching consequences for marine systems and processes, particularly coral reefs. The importance of sharks is further explained in a study by WildAid on global threats to sharks.
The fins of the critically endangered sawfish (Pristidae) are among the most important shark fins on the market in Asia. Sawfish are now protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the highest level of protection.
What Can You Do?
- Advocate for action
Changes to legislation or laws to prohibit the import and export of shark fins, as well as the selling of shark fins, are being promoted. Petitions are a perfect way to get people to take action.
- Educate others
Education is crucial! Educating people about this practice helps to raise awareness about it and inspires others to push for reform. It also helps customers be more mindful of what they’re buying, as shark meat is often mislabeled (e.g., Rock Salmon, Dogfish, and Flake), including endangered or illegal species.
Project Hiu, Shark Guardian, and Bite-Back Shark and Marine Conservation are among the organizations working to end shark finning. For example, by renting the boats for eco-tourism experiences, Project Hiu is providing an alternative source of income for local shark fishermen, as well as supporting schools and clean water for the wider community.