A new study of worldwide customs and trade data conducted by nonprofit research group WorldFish, confirms that shark-fin trade has dropped by approximately 25 percent over the last decade. The study conducted by Shelley Clarke and Hampus Eriksson, published in the journal Biological Conservation, examined the global exploitation of sharks and sea cucumbers to meet consumer demand in China.
Shark finning refers to the removal and retention of shark fins and the discard of the carcass at sea. An increase in shark finning has been observed since 1997, resulting primarily from the increasing demand for shark fins for shark fin soup and traditional cures, particularly in China and its territories, and as a result of improved fishing technology and market economics. Shark fins are among the most expensive seafood products, commonly retailing at US $400 per kg and estimates of the global value of the shark fin trade range from US $540 million to US $1.2 billion (2007) 1.
Up until recently, the demand for shark fin soup was at an all-time high. As affluence has grown in Asia, and in China particularly, so has the market for luxury items. One previous study estimated that fins from between 26 – 73 million sharks are traded globally each year, while reported world trade in fins nearly tripled from 4,900 metric tons in 1987 to 13,600 metric tons in 2004 1.
The shark finning process takes place on the fishing vessel whilst at sea, so the crew have only the fins to transport (shark meat is considered low value and therefore not worth the cost of transporting the bulky shark bodies to market). Nearly every fin on the shark is a target, with the primary and secondary dorsal fins being removed from the top of the shark, plus its pectoral fins, and, in a single cutting motion, the pelvic fin, anal fin, and bottom portion of its caudal fin, or tail. Once the fins have been removed, the shark is often still alive when it is tossed back into the water and is thus unable to swim. It sinks to the seabed where it either dies of suffocation or is eaten alive by other predatory fish.
Clarke and Eriksson’s study analysed trends in resource exploitation and market dynamics through reviewing global production and trade data for shark species. Their findings showed that shark capture production has peaked and is currently declining, suggesting that certain factors are constraining the shark fin trade.
Possible explanations have been proposed for the decline in shark fin demand. Clarke believes that government-led backlash against conspicuous consumption in China, combined with global conservation momentum, appears to have had some impact on traded volume. Since the global recession of 2009 the Chinese government has waged a campaign against shark fin and other conspicuous consumption products. “Also, some researchers and Beijing have suggested that there is a declining preference for shark fin because it is considered unhealthy or passé, or that the product is not real,” Clarke says. “People believe that the real fins must be in short supply because of the publicised decline of shark populations.”
The study also compared the global trade in shark fins to trade in sea cucumbers, and found that around 70 cucumber species are traded internationally to be used in traditional luxury cuisines, and many are endangered. Although sea cucumber overexploitation doesn’t get the same attention as shark finning, these invertebrates are the second most valuable seafood export in the Pacific after tuna, according to lead author Hampus Eriksson of the scientific advisory and conservation organisation WorldFish,. “While a range of factors may have contributed to a decline in traded and consumed shark fins, the same factors do not appear to have constrained the trade with sea cucumbers,” Eriksson says. ‘Significant progress has been made, but marine conservation advocates still have plenty to do.’
The critically acclaimed documentary Sharkwater by filmmaker Rob Stewart examines the global shark finning industry and exposes the exploitation and corruption surrounding illegal shark fishing. Watch the trailer below:
Header Photo Credit
naturepl.com/Jeff Rotman / WWF