As worldwide shark numbers continue to plummet, will governments be able to turn the tide? A look at today's global shark meat & finning industry.
Dead silky sharks at fish market in Beruwela, Sri Lanka
Sharks are in crisis globally. A colossal estimated 100 million are killed each year, and this number is only based on internationally reported data. The real total is likely to be far worse. Given the long and complex maturity cycle of these fish, it is impossible to sustain shark population stability at current commercial fishing activities.
Although governments around the world have created more regulations to try to slow down the rate at which sharks and rays are killed and traded, it seems that little has changed. How bad is it really? Here are some facts to put things in perspective:
Figure 1: important shark and legislative facts
Shark trade in the EU
The EU has taken legislative measures to curb shark finning practices on its territory, but many loopholes remain as well as a serious lack of ability to enforce the laws.
Since 2003, shark finning is considered unlawful in EU waters, but there are exemptions included in the regulation (so-called 'Special Fishing Permits' or 'SFPs') that have since become the rule in the two biggest EU shark fishing countries, Spain and Portugal. It was also very difficult to enforce the regulation for fleets that are not having these permits.
In 2013, a ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ regulation was introduced that prohibits vessels in EU waters as well as EU vessels outside EU waters to remove valuable fins of sharks and rays and discard the lethally wounded animals overboard to make room for more lucrative species like tuna. Unfortunately, in practice it is often nearly impossible to assess the compliance to this regulation in both national and international waters.
"Despite the legislative measures, the EU accounts for 22% of the global shark meat trade, and is the main supplier of shark meat to southeast and east asian markets"
- WWF shark & ray meat report 2021
In the first place, because there is such a lack in the comprehensive management of the laws, fins continue to be exported legally and illegally, including those of protected species.
For example, Spain is the leading country in the highly complex global trade of unprocessed shark fins (exporting to over 85 countries and territories), and is constantly trying to seek exemptions to the legal regulations imposed by the EU. Also, the Independent observer rate on ships of Spanish fleets (the largest EU exporter of shark fins) is only 1-3%!
Figure 2: Shark trade (2009-2019) in volume for top exporters, importers & trade links
Second, the global demand of shark and ray meat has accelerated tremendously, and the 'Fins Naturally Attached' regulation doesn't make fishing sharks and rays unlawful if their fins remain attached when fleet cargoes are landed.
Because of this, EU Member States like Spain, Italy, France and Portugal, who are amongst some of the most important traders in terms of volume and value, also act as important trade bridges between key parts of the global network. This means that these traders could have a major impact on prices and the flow of traded volume.
Singapore - June 16, 2013. Baskets with dried shark fin, herbs and fish products at a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Chinat, often supplied by European countries.
Shark trade in the US
Unfortunately, the US has a similar story to share in this problematically complex industry. The country acts as a major facilitator and transit hub in international shark fin trade despite the legislative measures introduced. In-transit shipments are rarely monitored or inspected.
In 2000, the Shark Finning Prohibition Act was passed, which made the possession of shark fins without bodies unlawful. But this law was very flawed. Enforcement on the ground was ineffective because shark bodies and hundreds of fins would be mixed which makes matching the fins to the corresponding bodies impossible.
2010 marks the year the US Shark Conservation Act took effect. This was the US variant of the EU 'Fins Naturally Attached Act', with unfortunately very similar issues. As global market demand for shark meat increases, this regulation will not be able to curb the massive global decline in shark and ray populations.
What is typically witnessed is the high variety in robustness of nation-wide implementation into local law. Some US states have a total ban on the possession of any shark meat or fins, while others have no laws at all. Even in states where shark products are banned, you can find shark meat and shark fin dishes on the menu of several Asian restaurants. Across all states, fines and jailtime for possession and trade in shark fins are light and have little deterrent effect. The fines and jailtime are in striking contrast to the huge profits people in the business make from shark fins and meat.
Dead Shark in fishing net strangled to death
Shark trade in Asia
While Asian countries like China have long been the international focus in this topic, it seems there is a gradual shift happening in the country.
2012: The Chinese government announces a nationwide prohibition of serving of shark fin soup at any official government function or banquets.
At first it might not seem like a significant legislative measure compared to other laws in the world; banning shark fin soup in certain events does not make the import and export of shark fins illegal by any means. However, the statement appears to have had an important sociocultural impact on the Chinese population.
In China and Hong Kong, shark fin soup is losing its popularity, especially among younger people. There is a growing awareness in China about the need to conserve and protect sharks.
- Dorothy Cheng, WildAid Hong Kong
A recent WWF report found that the role of China has indeed declined, likely because of a high-profile campaign against shark finning, although the country is still the world’s sixth largest importer of shark meat in terms of volume, and among the top five exporters according to value. Since 2011, consumption of shark fin soup in China has fallen by almost 80 percent, and this is largely attributed to both national bans on serving shark fin soup at government banquets as well as the effect of celebrity-backed awareness campaigns like Yao Ming's, which is seen by millions of Chinese.
According to a 2018 WildAid report, when WildAid began its Chinese anti-shark fin campaign in 2006, 75 percent of consumers were not even aware the soup they consumed was made from shark, and the ones that did know mistakenly thought shark's fins grew back after cutting them off.
Other Asian countries
Unfortunately, while in China demand for shark fin is declining, a rapid increase is seen in Southeast and East Asia, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Thailand. Singapore typically re-exports a significant part of its shark fin and meat imports, which explains why the city-state is listed as the world’s sixth biggest exporter of shark meat by value.
Industrial fishing - aerial view of large fishing trawlers sorting and transferring a large catch between vessels
Shark trade globally
It’s a global trade that requires management and transparency to tackle illegality and the rapid depletion of sharks and rays in our ocean”
- Simone Niedermueller of WWF’s Mediterranean Maritime Initiative.
The situation in the global shark fin trade is even more disturbing. Only a few countries have passed a “Fins Naturally Attached” law (e.g. USA, EU, Canada, India, South Africa). In many countries finning is still allowed, and adequate conservation policies are lacking.
Therefore, there is still a huge volume of fins on the global market, whose origin is rarely traceable.
Nationwide, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or 'CITES' listed several shark species on their Appendix II. The Appendices are lists of species afforded different levels or types of protection from over-exploitation, but the agreement is plagued by the same challenges that governments have in this regard, which is that policy enforcement is often insufficient to turn the tide.
What needs to be done?
There is an urgent need of more transparency, traceability and science-based management from point of catch through every step in the supply chain, to keep protected species out of the market and to allow consumer to make informed purchases.
Governments and organisations need to raise awareness about the global issue and ensure people understand eating shark fins or meat is not justifiable anymore. The “Fins Naturally Attached” regulation in the European Union and other countries and nations must be extended to the export, import and transit of sharks and rays.
How can you help?
Sign the petition around EU shark finning bans: https://www.stop-finning-eu.org
Make informed choices. Be mindful of what you eat from the ocean; read the labels in supermarket products, look for sustainable labels like MSC, and watch out for misleading fish names on restaurant menus (like 'rock salmon', 'flake', 'saumonette', 'mediterranean swordfish'). Try to consider switching a day of eating fish with something else. There are some delicious vegan options out there!
Raise awareness with other people about this topic, talk about it in your classroom, or make your children aware of the issues. Small steps will have a huge impact in the long run.
Consider donating to a marine conservation charity of your choice. They are working tirelessly to protect our oceans and the wildlife that lives in it.
Catch you later,
The Washington Post - Simon Denyer article, 2018
Davidson, L. N., Krawchuk, M. A. & Dulvy, N. K. Why have global shark and ray landings declined: improved management or overfishing? Fish Fish. 17, 438–458 (2016)
Dulvy, N. K. et al. Challenges and priorities in shark and ray conservation. Curr. Biol. 27, R565–R572 (2017)
Shutterstock for imagery