The demand for shark fin soup has driven many shark species to the brink of extinction, and threatens to destabilise the entire marine ecosystem. While some progressive conservation steps have recently been made, tough international measures are urgently needed to protect sharks, writes Susannah Waters.
17 July 2011
“And does anyone know what species this shark is?!” the museum tour guide asks the crowd of children in a high-pitched, excited tone. A chorus of voices shrieks back an array of guesses, with the guide praising the correct answer.
“Indeed – a tiger shark!”
He then leads the boisterous group to another display further along, repeating his question.
Rounding the next corner, the guide becomes slightly agitated and glances nervously to the left. He turns and bypasses that display, moving on briskly to continue his guessing game at the next exhibit.
What the guide is so eager to avoid is a video, on continual loop, about the gruesome practice of shark finning. The graphic images of sharks being butchered alive was likely deemed too disturbing for the visiting children.
But the video, highlighting shark finning’s devastating effect on global shark populations, was undoubtedly the most important aspect of the Planet Shark - Predator or Prey exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum earlier this year.
The price of fins
Shark finning – the process of cutting off a shark’s fins for commercial use – is driven by a multi-billion dollar a year industry servicing the shark fin soup market.
The principal market for shark fins is Hong Kong, which imported 10 million kilograms (10,000 tonnes) of shark fin in 2008, and encompasses up to 80% of the entire trade. The majority of fins transited through Hong Kong wind up on the Chinese mainland, where shark fin soup is afforded a high status.
Demand for the soup has escalated in recent years, and has accordingly spearheaded a steep drop in shark populations.
Tooni Mahto of the Australian Marine Conservation Society has a special interest in shark conservation. The Marine Campaigns Officer affirms that shark finning’s repercussions on shark species are enormous.
“Shark finning and the targeted fishing of sharks around the world pose the greatest threat to the continued existence of sharks in our global oceans”, Mahto tells The Scavenger.
Research indicates that worldwide shark numbers have plummeted by as much as 90% in recent decades, largely attributable to shark finning. It is estimated that an astonishing 100 million sharks are killed specifically for their fins each year.
Mahto pinpoints the “immense” financial incentives to obtain shark fins as central to the problem.
This relentless quest for profit has placed sharks in unprecedented danger. In fact, their dwindling numbers are providing further enticement for the industry to continue its trade.
Animals Asia explains: “As sharks become scarce, the value of their fins increases, as does the incentive for fishermen to search out remaining populations”. Sharks are therefore entrapped in a vicious cycle of over-exploitation.
Presently, around 30% of all shark species are threatened with extinction.
According to Claudette Rechtorik, Research & Education Manager at the Sydney Aquarium Conservation Fund, many species are being fished at a rate faster than their reproductive capacities can replenish numbers.
“Given the finite number of sharks in the system and the number of mortalities occurring annually, based on simple maths, shark populations will continue to decline”, Rechtorik tells The Scavenger.
The scalloped hammerhead is just one species classified as endangered in recent years, due to the demand for shark fin soup. A decrease in numbers of 98% in some regions has placed this species at great risk of extinction.
Butchered alive and abandoned at sea
A two-metre shark is hauled on board a wooden boat. She lashes about in fear as two sets of human hands attempt to steady her. A third pair of hands, wielding a knife, moves in toward the panicking shark.
As the long blade severs the dorsal fin from her writhing body, pure terror inhabits her dark eyes. Within seconds, the same menacing hands dismember her tail and pectoral fins. The group then rolls the terrified and bleeding shark back into the ocean, where she sinks to an unknown fate.
This grisly technique of removing a shark’s fins places prime value on retention of the fins, while the remainder of the shark is generally dismissed as surplus. Shark meat doesn’t generate returns in the same realm as fins, so after enduring the violent removal of their fins, the disabled sharks are typically tossed back into the sea to suffer an excruciating death.
Conservation group Sea Shepherd reveals that many sharks ultimately bleed to death, or are attacked by other sharks or fish. Others drown, as their inability to swim results in a lack of oxygen circulating through their gills.
Every day, hundreds of fishing vessels roll into dock, strewn with the souvenirs of shark slaughter on deck - evidence of a vicious war being waged against sharks, away from public view and in the name of profit.
Shark protection is undermined by an absence of laws preventing fishing in the open seas. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of individual nations to enact legislation governing their own territorial waters, and many countries do not have such regulations in place.
Nevertheless, national regulations and laws are often not decisive enough to protect sharks adequately. The existence of legal loopholes can often enable fishing vessels to simply bypass shark finning restrictions.
Earlier this year the US government ratified the Shark Conservation Act, effectively closing a loophole which had facilitated the purchase of shark fins on the open sea by US vessels for years. The fins were on-sold at an inflated price on US markets.
Shark finning has been illegal in US waters since 2000. However, as it is stipulated that fins can be transported back to port provided they are accompanied by their associated carcass, fins are still entering the market.
Australia also has a somewhat ambiguous position on the issue of shark finning. While the finning and disposal of sharks at sea is illegal - owing in part to a campaign by the Australian Marine Conservation Society - it is still permitted to utilise a shark’s fins, provided the entire shark is retained by the fishing vessel.
Hundreds of thousands of sharks are fished legally in Australian waters every year. The lucrative fins are frequently the primary target, and the carcass is generally appropriated for less profitable flake products.
Disappointingly, this means that Australia is still feeding the supply chain of the trade, and is doing very little to discourage the slaughter of sharks for their fins. Mahto reveals that in 2007, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service recorded the export of 165 tonnes (165,000 kg) of shark fin from Australia.
Furthermore, Australia imports approximately 10,000 kilograms of dried shark fin per year, which is tantamount to 26,000 sharks. Mahto says that Australia is sadly lagging behind precedents being set by other nations, and that the best hope for sharks in the region is for the trade of all shark products to be outlawed.
Globally, illegal fishing is rampant, and the preservation of marine protected areas can be flouted with full knowledge of the authorities.
This was highlighted in the 2006 documentary Sharkwater. It uncovered clandestine shark finning operations functioning with government collusion in Costa Rican marine reserves, where sharks are ostensibly protected.
An International Plan of Action for sharks was established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1999. However, as adhering to the Plan is voluntary, the UN has no authority over non-compliance. Moreover, the Plan’s recommendations do not explicitly state that shark fins should not be acquired – only that sharks not be fished purely for their fins.
Positively, Mahto believes that a “groundswell of international support” for sharks is beginning to gain traction. She applauds what she deems “incredibly positive international shark conservation steps” taken by some countries in recent months.
She cites the recent announcement of a permanent shark sanctuary in Honduras, which will uphold a moratorium on the commercial fishing of sharks established there last year.
Other international steps indicate that shark protection is creeping onto the global agenda.
Last year, the Maldives extended a national embargo on shark hunting, banning shark fishing in all its waters plus all shark product exports. In a joint report, TRAFFIC and the Pew Environment Group claim the decision was based on “evidence that sharks are more valuable as a tourist attraction than as exported meat and fins”.
The Malaysian state of Sabah, which has seen drastic reductions in shark species, is currently preparing legislation for a ban on shark finning.
But are these efforts enough? Are they too little, too late?
Rechtorik says that while many organisations and some governments are working hard on shark protection, “when working with cultural norms it can take time. Unfortunately we don’t have that time”. She believes that the need for action by the international community is “urgent”.
Mahto agrees that “global protection” for sharks from fishing and finning is desperately needed.
Thus, while individual legislation within countries is commendable, it is clear that piecemeal measures are grossly insufficient to rectify a problem of this scale. In the absence of any legally binding and enforceable international agreements protecting sharks, they remain vulnerable and largely left at the mercy of a ruthless industry with a lot to gain.
International cooperation, in the form of a mandatory agreement, is possibly the last hope for the continued survival of sharks.
In what have been described as “shocking” findings, a high-level workshop of marine scientists, convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), recently analysed the current state of the world’s oceans. Their assessment was grim.
IPSO claims the multi-country panel produced “a grave assessment of current threats - and a stark conclusion about future risks to marine and human life if the current trajectory of damage continues: that the world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history”.
Scientists have long warned that if sharks disappeared from our oceans, there would be a snowball effect on other marine species and the entire ocean environment. And while there appears to be consensus that the impact on marine ecosystems would be catastrophic, we are yet to fully grasp the magnitude of the crisis.
According to Rechtorik, the over-exploitation of sharks is causing “untold ecological damage”. She says that there is already evidence of what occurs when “top predators” such as sharks disappear from the environment.
One significant outcome is that “prey species proliferate and ecosystem function becomes unbalanced”. Rechtorik also asserts that damage to habitat is a natural consequence of this.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society contends that marine ecosystems risk total collapse without sharks. Mahto remarks that this is because sharks bring an “element of stability” due to their “incredibly important role” in the marine environment. Consequently, she believes that a worldwide recognition of the value of sharks is crucial to the health of the ocean.
“If sharks species are to go extinct in our lifetime, this will not only have a catastrophic effect on marine health, but will also be a tragic testament to the way in which we interact with our wild blue planet”, Mahto says.
Sharks are an ancient species which has survived for at least 400 million years through several global mass extinctions – a demonstration of their resilience.
With 100 million sharks being brutally killed for soup each year, Mahto’s words are particularly pertinent. Will we allow them to disappear on our watch?
Susannah Waters is associate editor at The Scavenger.
Images from top: Shark finning, photo by Shelley Clarke; the Great White Shark, photo courtesy of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.