Shark fin soup – a traditional Chinese delicacy dating back over a thousand years, popular as a prestigious dish served to impress your guests, eaten at wedding celebrations and at New Year. Hong Kong restaurants may charge up to a staggering US$250 a bowl for the best shark fin soup, said to be made out of the fins of hammerhead sharks, but you can also buy it cheaply from street vendors for less than US$1; it’s widely consumed throughout Asia, and appears on menus worldwide. Hong Kong is the shark fin trading hub, accounting for more than half of the world trade. With the increase in prosperity in the Far East in recent years, there is an increasing demand for shark fins, but what is the true cost of shark fin soup?
What is shark finning?
As the trade in shark (and ray) fins can be so lucrative, it is very attractive to fishermen and middlemen – and organised crime syndicates. In contrast to fins, there is less demand for shark meat (fins are worth 20 to 250 times the value of meat by weight) so instead of landing whole sharks, which take up space on board, the fins are cut off the sharks, often while they are still alive and the rest of the shark is thrown overboard. Unable to swim properly, they suffocate or die of blood loss from their huge wounds – the marine equivalent of elephant and rhino poaching.
Much of this ‘shark finning’ occurs far offshore, away from the reaches of enforcement vessels. For example, a lack of patrol vessels means that the offshore fisheries in Mozambique are largely unregulated and longliners with licenses for tuna may instead target shark, even switching gear and using gill nets to fish for shark. A 2005 report estimated that hundreds of Taiwanese fishing vessels were operating shark-fin fisheries offshore of Africa and the Middle East in the Western Indian Ocean. Fins were transhipped to freezer carriers and transported to Asian ports. But shark finning is not just happening offshore. In southern Mozambique Chinese nationals buy fins from artisanal fishers and smuggle them out of the country via Maputo or the Bazaruto Archipelago. It is said to be a huge and organised industry.
Shark finning is not just occurring in unregulated fisheries. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Southeast Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO) and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) all require full utilisation of entire shark catches, but do allow fins to be removed at sea provided all parts of the shark are utilized and the weight of fins landed does not exceed 5% of the weight of the carcasses. The reason given for needing to remove the fins is that it makes the sharks easier to store, but Costa Rica has shown that whole sharks can be stored efficiently by partially cutting the fins and flattening them against the body before freezing. The 5% ratio of fin to body weight is considered to be high, so it’s not too difficult to sidestep the law.
Effect on shark populations
Cruelty and ethics are only part of the story. Sharks are vulnerable to fishing for several reasons: they grow slowly, are slow to mature, have long gestation periods and produce relatively few pups. It’s thought that around 100 million sharks are killed each year and according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. They are also vulnerable to pollution; toxic chemicals become increasingly concentrated towards the top of the food chain, and as sharks are apex predators their bodies can contain very high levels of toxins like mercury, affecting reproduction. The decimation of top predators like sharks can have devastating effects on entire ecosystems.
What can be done?
- Ban the removal of fins at sea. In Africa shark finning is banned in Gambia, Guinea, Seychelles (without authorisation), Sierra Leone and South Africa. All shark fishing is banned in Congo-Brazzaville.
- Protective legislation is needed for endangered species of sharks and rays.
- Ban transshipment at sea- transshipment is used to avoid proper catch reporting and to launder IUU caught fish.
- Increase observer coverage on ships.
- Improve the implementation of port state measures to track down IUU fishing.
Given the difficulties of enforcing regulations, perhaps what is needed most is education. In an attempt to reduce the prestige of shark fin soup the Chinese government prohibited it at official banquets in 2012 and celebrities are starting to speak out against the practice. But there’s a long way to go – a recent survey found that shark fin soup still served at 98 per cent of Hong Kong restaurants.
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