Shark finning is a controversial animal trade; while some cultures argue that it is an important player in traditional celebrations, the general scientific community is in agreement that it is having massively damaging implications for international shark populations.
What is Shark Finning?
Shark finning is an often inhumane fishing practice. Fins are removed from the shark, usually while the animal is still alive. Their finless bodies (or “logs”) are returned to the ocean, and the animal most often drowns, unable to swim. Shark harvest in excess is unsustainable and wasteful since only a small portion of the animal is used. Shark collection for fins is indiscriminate, and fins are sold based on size (length and thickness), weight, and texture rather than by species. Any fleshy fin, devoid of bones, can be taken, including pectoral, pelvic, anal, half of the caudal, and both primary and secondary dorsal fins.
Fins are mainly used as ingredients in shark fin soup. The broth-based dish runs upwards of $85 Canadian per portion, and is served at cultural events like weddings.
An excerpt from a menu of the Sea King Shark Fin Soup Seafood Restaurant in Ottawa. It is always a shock to see conservation infractions so close to home (literally, around the corner).
Apparently the fin is tasteless, but provides a gelatinous texture to the soup. The meal has been considered a delicacy of haute cuisine in China for centuries. The soup continues to act as a status symbol due to exclusivity and exoticism (Clarke et al., 2007), but has become affordable to the general public within the last decade. Hong Kong is the world’s largest market for shark fins, home to over half of the global trade (Fong and Anderson, 2002; Clarke et al., 2006).
Fifteen years ago, the harvest of elasmobranches (sharks and rays) was estimated at 100 million tonnes per year (Hoelzel, 2001). Five years later, it had increased to up to 2.2 million tonnes per year (Clarke et al., 2006), with an annual market value of up to 550 million USD per year (Clarke et al., 2007). This increasing rate is still likely an underestimate, since catch records are often wrought with inaccuracies (Clarke et al., 2008). Further, Drew et al. (2015) observed that reefs in closer proximity to large human populations had lower biodiversity of sharks, which is an indicator of an unhealthy reef.
Implications of Excess Harvest
Sharks are top predators, maintaining the balance of ocean ecosystems. Their presence influences the community structure below them, controlling the abundance of lower trophic level species. The removal of sharks has adverse effects cascading down the food web, even implicating seagrass beds and corals due to an increase in herbivorous fishes (Oceana, 2008).
Several case studies have made the future of a shark-less ocean clear. In the Atlantic, the population of scalloped hammerheads was reduced 75% by 2003, leading to a drastic increase in skates and rays. These meso-predators, or members of a middle trophic level, feed heavily on shellfish. As a result of shark overexploitation and subsequent ray abundance, the scallop industry on the East coast experienced collapses from New Jersey to Florida (Myers et al., 2007).
Because the harvest of sharks is indiscriminate, shark species being targeted are difficult to quantify. Clarke and colleagues (2006) assessed the species composition of fins sold in Hong Kong markets using genetic analysis and trade records. They found that the markets mainly auctioned blue sharks, as well as short-fin mako, silky, sandbar, bull, hammerhead, and thresher sharks. Methodology is becoming more efficient for identifying sharks from small genetic fin samples (Hoelzel, 2001; Sebastien et al., 2008), but the restrictions on information by clandestine shark processors, sellers, and buyers make accurate estimates of species and trafficking difficult. As a result, implementing protection regulations for specific species (or going the other way and blanket-protecting all sharks) is unrealistic and unfeasible (Worm et al., 2013).
Additionally, little research has investigated the connection between the demand for sharks and harvest management (Fong and Anderson, 2002). For effort regulations to be effective, the resource must remain productive, it must maintain economic performance, and it must maintain equity to access. Shiffman and Hammerschlag (2016) outlined how the elasmobranch scientific community is in favour of a positive approach to conservation of sharks. The majority of polled scientists believed that identifying threatened species, generating hunting quotas, and encouraging sustainable harvest would be more effective than outright banning shark consumption. The benefits of a managed fishery is that it does not encourage poaching, and involves fisherfolk in shark protection via population censuses. Marine Protected Areas based around shark hot spots (where lots of species are all located) is also another plausibly enforceable restriction.
Fong and Anderson also suggest implementing rights-based management, where a “total allowable catch”, or community quota, is set, and individuals can sell their personal quotas to other fishermen or companies (known as Individual Transferable Quotas). In this way, there is an economic gain for all parties involved without excess pressure on shark populations. A further method by the The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission is to enforce fishermen to keep shark bodies on board, and instead restrict the total weight of sharks they can catch, rather than implementing restrictions on the fins themselves (Clarke et al., 2008). This shift in mentality from assessing and restricting catch levels towards prohibitions on handling and utilization practices might be the novel solution this industry desperately needs.
What are your opinions on shark fisheries? Could you take the pledge to avoid restaurants that serve shark fin soup? Taking artistic liberties with the wise words of Bruce, “Sharks are friends, not food.”
Clarke et al., 2006. Estimates of shark species composition and numbers associated with the shark fin trade based on Hong Kong auction data. J. Northw. Atl. Sci., 35: 453-465.
Clarke et al., 2006b. Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets. Ecology Letters, 9: 1115–1126. doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2006.00968.x
Clarke et al., 2007. Social, economic, and regulatory drivers of the shark fin trade. Marine Resource Economics, 22: 305-327.
Clarke et al. 2012. Population trends in Pacific Oceanic Sharks and the utility of regulations on shark finning. Conservation Biology, 27(1): 197-209.
Drew et al., 2015. Quantifying the Human impacts on Papua New Guinea Reef Fish Communities Across Space and Time. PLOS One 10(10): e0140682.
Fong and Anderson, 2002. International shark fin markets and shark management: an integrated market preference-cohort analysis of the blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus). Ecological Economics, 40: 117-130.
Griffin et al., 2008. Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks. Oceana: http://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/Predators_as_Prey_FINAL_FINAL1.pdf
Hoelzel, 2001. Shark fishing in fin soup. Conservation Genetics, 2: 69-72.
Myers et al., 2007. Cascading effects of the loss of apex predatory sharks from a coastal ocean. Science, 315(5820): 1846 – 1850.
Sebastian et al., 2008. Characterization of the pelagic shark-fin trade in north-central Chile by genetic identification and trader surveys. Journal of Fish Biology, 73: 2293-2304.
Shiffman and Hammerschlag, 2016. Preferred conservation policy of shark researchers. Conservation Biology, DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12668.
Worm et al., 2013. Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy, 40: 194-204.