Many people fear sharks, when the reality is they have far more reason to fear us! As one writer put it perfectly: , “sharks are winding up on our dinner table more often than we do on theirs”. To such an extent that we humans are basically decimating sharks.
The shark-fin market is a huge threat to the world’s shark populations. It has become a multibillion-dollar industry since the early 1980s. Demand exploded with the rapid growth of China’s economy. Before then sharks weren’t really targeted by fisheries, but over those 30 years, many species have become threatened. True catch numbers are a mystery because much of the trade happens on the black market.
On top of the conservation impacts, the methods for taking fins are cruel. “Shark-finning” is the practice of chopping off a shark’s fins, and dumping the often-live animal back into the sea. No longer able to swim, the injured shark then drowns, bleeds to death, or is an easy target for predators.
What drives this is the high price of shark fins on the international market. They have become one of the world’s most precious products. Shark meat itself isn’t very valuable, so it is usually thrown overboard. Other parts that are used include skin, liver oil, cartilage, corneas, and blood. Often shark parts are put into medicines and supplements.
The fins fetch the highest price. A pound of shark fin can cost $300. And depending on which numbers you believe, people will pay from a hundred dollars up to $2,000 for a bowl of shark fin soup. For soup!
What is shark fin soup?
Shark fin soup is a thick broth flavored with ham and chicken. Shark fin is added for texture, usually sliced into long pieces like noodles, but it plays no role in the flavor. Some claim the soup has health benefits, but shark fin has no nutritional value.
Consumption of this soup directly causes the death of millions of sharks each year.
Preparation of shark fin soup is an ancient tradition developed over thousands of years. In China, shark fins have been used to make soup since the Han Dynasty over 2200 years ago. Its rarity was said to please Chinese emperors.
Today it remains a delicacy, a ritual symbol of luxury used at important events. It is often on the menu at weddings, banquets, and business lunches. It is meant to reflect the traditional cultural values of respect, hospitality, wealth, and personal honor that are central to such feasts.
In other words, it is a status symbol, and a gesture of generosity to family and friends.
The literal translation of the soup’s Chinese name is “fish wing”. So, only recently has the Chinese general public become aware that shark fin is a key ingredient.
Impact on shark populations
The shark fin industry’s center is Hong Kong, but shark catches come from worldwide. Countries that take the most sharks include Indonesia, India, Mexico, Spain, and Taiwan.
Take a look at some of these mind-boggling statistics about the current fate of sharks:
- More than 125 countries around the world trade shark products.
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that a third of open-ocean shark species are threatened with extinction.
- Somewhere from 10 to 100 million sharks are taken from the world’s oceans, each year. If the higher number is correct, that’s almost one third of the human population of the United States. No matter the number, the point is that humans are on the path to wiping out some of the world’s most ancient fishes.
- Putting aside deaths from accidental fishing Bycatch, about 1.5 million sharks are killed each week due to finning alone.
- Surveys of Atlantic marine ecosystems off the U.S. show that scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks have declined more than 97%. Bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks have declined more than 99 %. (Myers et al., March 30, 2007, issue of Science magazine)
The Truth Behind The Numbers
A team of researchers recently got past the mystery of numbers involved in the shark fin trade. They made the first estimate of shark catches that was independent of world fisheries data (Clarke et al. 2006). To do so they combined official catch data with weights of fins from fin auctions in Hong Kong, for more accurate estimates (remember that much of the trade happens on the black market, so it is untracked). They concluded that the amount of shark biomass (weight) involved in the fin trade is three to four times higher than what is reported. Estimates of the total number of sharks traded for fins worldwide ranged from 26 to 73 million per year. Clearly, sharks are being over-exploited.
Why The Shark Population Is Falling
Not only are these numbers astronomical, but sharks are super-vulnerable to over fishing because of their life history. Their “strategy” involves slow growth, late sexual maturity (from 7 to more than 20 years!), and low rates of reproduction. That means they start breeding later, and they only birth a few pups per year (not thousands or millions, like bony fish).
The demand for fins is greater than the ability of shark populations to rebound. In other words, sharks are being plucked from the ocean and killed faster than they can reproduce.
Impacts Of Shark Finning On Marine Ecosystems
Marine ecosystems have complex food webs. Sharks are top predators; altering their numbers has a big impact on other species that “cascades” through the entire system. As shark numbers decline, their prey species have increased (e.g. rays), who in turn are taking more of their own prey (e.g. scallops). As a result, many species of mollusks are rapidly declining.
Researchers are also seeing the ripple effects of dramatic shark declines in the Caribbean. Fish usually eaten by sharks are now increasing in number, such as groupers. Those predators feed on parrotfish, which in turn eat algae off coral reefs. The result? Too many groupers = too few parrotfish = too much algae. This is altering marine systems by limiting the resources available to all species that depend on coral reef habitats.
Global responses to shark finning
The two main things need to happen to fight shark finning: spreading the word, and demanding better conservation laws / programs that protect sharks.
Awareness of shark finning is definitely growing. For change to occur, this must translate to a shift in public support for shark conservation, in areas where shark fins are traded and eaten (mostly in East Asia).
What about the response of lawmakers? Many countries have banned shark finning, including Australia, the European Union, and the United States. However this doesn’t necessarily stop consumption. For example, shark finning is illegal in Canada, but importing shark fins from places that allow finning is still allowed. In various places there are rules to stop boats from having too many fins on board, compared to the number of whole sharks. However, many loopholes in these laws allow the black market to thrive.
Among many cities that have taken action, Toronto, Canada had a progressive ban on the possession, sale or consumption of any shark fin food products within the city. However, it was just overturned after some community members challenged it in court (claiming it was an insult that singled out Chinese cultural traditions). The ruling said the city had no authority act, because sharks are a “national” resource. *Sigh*…. Even when there is progress, sometimes we take a step back.
Up until recently it was difficult to identify sharks using their fins alone, because the fins of different species can look the same. But such information is needed to tackle overfishing. Now, newer approaches using genetic forensic techniques are making that task much easier. This method can be used as a tool to fight the illegal trade by identifying stocks/species that are being exploited.
What you can do
Individuals have the power to make change, and there are many things people can do to combat shark finning. If you shark fin soup is eaten where you live, make a commitment to refuse it, and the restaurants that serve it. Avoid products that contain shark parts.
Shark conservation groups are also making a difference. Shark Truth holds annual contests aimed at taking shark fin off the menu at wedding banquets. Many couples have taken their pledge and earned the chance to win a honeymoon vacation in Hawaii (the first state that banned the soup).
Alternatives are available, such as other types of soup. Some clever chefs have even developed recipes for shark fin soup minus the fins, using other ingredients to provide the same texture!
Most inspiring of all are the amazing stories of young people fighting for sharks. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is a vocal advocate of shark conservation, and she has publicized the efforts of kids who are leading the way:
- In 2011, Sophi from Minnesota was named a Youth Hero for her campaign to help sharks by selling lemonade and shark-shaped cookies. She raised over $2,000 for shark research programs. You can read more about her and other young shark advocates through this research program at the University of Miami.
- Sawyer is taking on the restaurants that serve shark fin soup where she lives. She is leading a petition to ban shark fin soup in her state of Texas, making and handing out flyers, visiting restaurants to explain the shark fin problem, protest if they ignore her, and she even has her own website.
To sum up, shark finning is both ecologically harmful and ethically disgraceful. Only by sharing awareness about it do we have a hope of making change. The world’s populations of these majestic, prehistoric creatures depend on it!
Clarke SC et al (2006). Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets. Ecology Letters 9:1115-1126.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show:
Leber J (2012). A Taste for Change: Divorcing shark-fin soup from Asian wedding menus Conservation Magazine (University of Washington).
Mahr K (2010). Shark-Fin Soup and the Conservation Challenge. Time Magazine.
Myers RA, Baum JK, Shepherd TD, Powers SP & Peterson CH (2007). Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean. Science 315 (5820):1846-1850.
Spiegel J (2001). Even Jaws Deserves to Keep His Fins: Outlawing Shark Finning Throughout Global Waters, Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 24:409-438.
Stop Shark Finning: Shark Fin Soup – what’s the scoop?
Verlecar XN, Snigdha Desai SR, Dhargalkar VK (2007). Shark hunting – An indiscriminate trade endangering elasmobranchs to extinction. Current Science 92:1078-1082.
Sharkwater (Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about the plight of sharks