History and cultural significance of the barbaric and destructive practice
Sharks Fin Soup is served at prestigeous functions or to important guests.
Sharks often have their fins removed while alive and are thrown back to die a slow painful death.
The dorsal pectoral and tail fins are usually taken by the fishermen.
Finned sharks piled high on a longlining boat.
A discarded, dying shark slowly sinks into the depths.
Shark-finning is the practice of removing the fins of sharks, almost exclusively for the preparation of sharks' fin soup.
The consumption of sharks' fin soup began in China during the Ming dynasty (14th-17th century). Because of the extremely limited availability of shark fins during that time, the consumption of sharks' fin soup became a symbol of wealth, the dish being offered during celebrations or to impress important guests.
The high cost limited the consumption of shark fin until recent decades. The increased wealth of the rapidly growing Chinese middle-class has now brought the product within reach of millions more people, and sharks' fin soup is now eaten in Chinese restaurants worldwide. Most people are unaware of the industry's impacts.
Shark fin is said to have little inherent flavour; instead it absorbs the flavours of the other ingredients of the soup with which it is cooked, the processed cartilage giving the product a glutinous consistency. Its perceived rarity and high value probably accounts for its popularity among the expanding middle-classes in China and Chinese communities overseas. It is considered to be both a tonic and an aphrodisiac.
Shark-finning is now a multi-million-dollar worldwide industry. A single large whale shark pectoral fin can retail for as much as US$15,000 in China.
The practice of shark-finning
Fins from a variety of shark species are sought, the pectoral, dorsal and tail fins being preferred. Most shark fisheries use longlines. In the past, longline offshore fisheries largely targeted high-value pelagic (ocean) fish species such as tuna, although sharks were often caught as by-catch and thrown back. The increase in demand for shark fin has resulted in many fishermen exclusively fishing for shark, and many others retaining the fins from sharks that are caught as by-catch.
Traditionally, most shark fishing has taken place offshore, although the low set-up cost and the high value of the product has led to many inshore artisanal (traditional) fisheries targeting sharks, particularly along tropical coasts. The industry now exploits and threatens both pelagic and inshore species.
The fins are skinned, dried and sometimes bleached with peroxide, before being sold either dried or frozen.
Although shark-finning occurs worldwide, Hong Kong represents the largest centre for the shark-fin trade, accounting for 50-80 per cent of all trade in fins. It is estimated that at least 7,000 metric tonnes of dried shark fin are traded every year. Almost 30 per cent of all shark fins imported into Hong Kong originate from the European Union.
Cruelty and waste
The fins are usually the only valuable part of the shark, shark meat being considered inferior and difficult to store. So rather than storing the whole shark, which would severely limit the catch a single boat could land, the fins are normally cut off at sea, and the shark, minus its fins but often still alive, is thrown back, to suffer a prolonged and agonising death.
The high-value fins do not take up much space, so single vessels kill much larger numbers of sharks than they would otherwise be able. Up to 99 per cent of the weight of the shark is discarded at sea.
Low-income communities that traditionally rely on coastal species of shark as a staple source of meat are deprived, as the commercial shark-finning industry depletes their food source to supply shark fin to the luxury restaurant market.
Sharks are generally slow-maturing fish, with low reproductive fecundity. As an example, a female basking shark may not reach sexual maturity for 15 to 20 years, thereafter producing between four and six young each two to three years. This kind of reproductive strategy is common among top predators in a system, and is designed to maintain numbers over the long term. However, it makes species using this strategy extremely vulnerable to exploitation, since they cannot recover their numbers rapidly after a big drop.
Most countries do not keep accurate data on catch, fishing effort, by-catch discards or trade in shark products. Also, many longline fisheries landing tuna or other pelagic fish, consider shark fins to be "crew's bounty" and do not declare them as official catch. This makes estimation and regulation of the trade in shark fin very difficult.
Conservative estimates suggest in excess of 100 million sharks per year are finned. There is no regard for age or size.
Of the 591 species in the class Chondrychthyes (sharks, rays and chimeras) that have been studied by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (just over half the total number of known species), 126 (21 per cent) are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, with a further 107 (18 per cent) classified as near-threatened, and 35 per cent data deficient. Over-exploitation and by-catch represent the major threats to these animals, and for sharks, the major exploiting fishery is shark-finning.
Many shark species may be irretrievably depleted already, with many others to follow. Over the past 15 years it is estimated that numbers of some species have reduced by as much as 80 per cent due to finning. As sharks become scarce, the value of their fins increases, as does the incentive for fishermen to search out remaining populations.
Wider ecosystem effects
Many shark species are apex, or top, predators, and as such are keystone species in the ecosystem in which they live. They are important in the removal of slow or sick prey, and therefore have an important role in the regulation of prey populations. The removal of such apex predators will have all kinds of unforeseen effects on the ecosystem.
There are few regulations limiting shark-finning around the world. Many shark species cross between national and international waters rendering national attempts to control the fishery ineffective.
One way to try to regulate the industry would be to insist that sharks are landed whole, therefore forcing the fishermen to kill the sharks they catch, and drastically reducing the capacity of the fishing boats in terms of the numbers of fins they can carry. Some ports demand that landed fins constitute a maximum of 5 per cent of the total shark product, although few places require fins to be landed still attached to the sharks.
However, Animals Asia would argue that the practice of landing sharks for their fins is cruel and unnecessary, whether they are landed whole or finned at sea.
Shark-finning violates the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and its International Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks. However, these codes and plans are not mandatory, but are recommended to governments for incorporation into their own national law. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora lists the basking shark, great white shark, and whale shark, in appendix II, effectively limiting any international commercial trade, although this does not seem to stop the finners.
So what can you do?
Sharks are in trouble and need our help. Animals Asia Foundation never underestimates the power of the written word, and while a single letter or email may not seem like much, the collective expression of many people's opinions can help bring about real change. In Hong Kong, letter-writing efforts by Animals Asia and others encouraged the Hong Kong Disney Foundation and the University of Hong Kong to take sharks’ fin soup off their menus.
Write to local Chinese restaurants or events organisers that offer sharks’ fin soup on their menu, expressing your concerns.
Write to your local or national government representative, asking for increased protection for sharks in national and international waters, and for them to implement the recommendations of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's International Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (http://www.fao.org/fishery/ipoa-sharks).
Support organisations that campaign against shark-finning. Some of these are listed among the sources of information below.
Above all, never eat sharks’ fin soup or other products containing shark fins, or buy teeth or trinkets said to come from sharks.
Many people argue that sharks are ferocious beasts that can take care of themselves. In fact their low fecundity and late maturation makes them very vulnerable to exploitation, more so than many other species of fish.
Some people claim that sharks are man-eaters that we are better off without. In fact, humans pose an infinitely greater threat to sharks, through over-exploitation (largely for their fins) and by-catch, than sharks could ever pose to people. The vast majority of shark species are completely harmless to people, and people do not form a natural part of the diet of those that could harm us.
Shark attacks on people receive huge amounts of publicity but are actually extremely rare, and can easily be avoided. The International Shark Attack File, held by the Florida Museum of Natural History, report an average of around 57 recorded shark attacks per year worldwide over the past 18 years, with an annual average of 5.5 fatalities. Compare this to the estimated 1.2 million people killed and 50 million injured each year in traffic accidents (Population Reference Bureau).
Sources of information
Chinese food recipes http://www.chinesefood-recipes.com/ (retrieved 13/3/09)
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora http://www.cites.org/ (retrieved 13/3/09)
International Shark Attack File http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/isaf/isaf.htm (retrieved 13/3/09)
International Union for the Conservation of Nature red list http://www.iucnredlist.org/ retrieved 13/3/09
Population Reference Bureau http://www.prb.org/ (retrieved 13/3/09)