That’s the equivalent to over 220 million bowls of shark fin soup being served in restaurants all over the world. Granted, this may seem insignificant to many Americans because not many of us have ever had a shark, let alone shark fin soup. But the reality is the senseless slaughter of millions of sharks is going on all over the world every day. The practice of shark finning has increased tenfold over the past 3 decades due to the increase in demand for shark fin soup.
The practice of shark finning involves taking living sharks and butchering them for their fins and then discarding the still living sharks. Since sharks rely on their fins to move they wind up sinking to the bottom of the sea where they die a slow and painful death.
Shark fin soup has been a popular delicacy in China since the Ming Dynasty around 1368. Being a delicacy it was typically reserved for the elite. If you were not elite, you may still have consumed it for a special occasion such as a wedding. However, now that China’s economy is growing exponentially, consumption has risen along with the rise of the middle class. Shark fin’s high price has made it a status symbol for many people to eat. These same high prices have made it particularly lucrative for entrepreneurial fishermen in Spain, Norway, France, Britain, Portugal, and Italy to seek out sharks as their main catch. Fishermen from Spain alone contribute somewhere between 2000 and 5000 metric tons of shark fin a year, and most of these fins, approximately 50-80% of the world’s shark fins, will come through Hong Kong.
Due to shark finning, there has been a drastic decrease in the population of many species of sharks. Some species have been depleted by over 90% over the past 30 years. The white tip shark has had its population depleted by a staggering 99%. Most species have seen approximately a 70% population decline.
One of the most common ways to catch sharks is through a highly destructive practice called Long Lining. Long Lining involves setting out a line with up to 1500 hooks on it to catch as many sharks as possible (and any other marine animal as by-catch, including sea turtles). This is done over and over until the fishermen have reached their quota for fins. Some experts believe that because of longlining most species of sharks will be lost within the next decade. Since most species of sharks take 20 years to reach sexual maturity harvesting massive quantities deplete populations faster than they can reproduce.
What’s being done?
Right now there are few countries and laws that have actually banned shark fishing, and those that have restrictions on shark fishing and shark finning have not successfully enforced their rules. Organizations such as IUCN, a shark specialist group, have proposed a fin to body weight ratio for fishers. Some countries have finning legislation that stipulates fins must arrive in a 5% weight ratio of the carcasses on board, which is by no means a solution, as this does not stop the practice of shark finning, and instead, provides a loophole for savvy fishermen to continue this practice.
Although shark fining violates the UN food and agriculture organizations code of conduct it is hard to police because this process is done at sea in international waters. So the best approach to help combat shark finning is to educate the consumer.
The consumer must understand that sharks are vital to the health of our oceans, and without them, entire marine ecosystems may break down. And if this is not compelling enough of a reason to be against shark finning, the high levels of mercury in shark fins may cause sterility in men and birth defects in pregnant females.
And as one anti-shark finning campaign goes,
“When the buying stops, the killing can too”.