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The Papua New Guinea National Fisheries Authority recently apprehended a boat that had been targeting shark under its tuna licence. Unfortunately, the case was thrown out of court on a technicality. Here the sharks have been finned.
Photo: Courtesy of the PNG National Fisheries Authority

May 28, 2001
Shark Finning
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey about one of the most appalling fishing practices now being pursued. Called shark finning, it is the fishery that collects the fins of sharks so they can be used to make Shark fin soup. This fishery has become almost unbelievably lucrative owing to the high prices shark fins command in cities like Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where a bowl of shark fin soup can cost $90. Most of the sharks caught in America have reached that market, but not their bodies, just their fins. Most of the bodies got dumped back into the sea.

There are many varieties of shark fin soup, but the part of the fin used in making it is just the fibers, and they are said not to add flavor, only texture. What gives the soup its flavor is its main ingredients: chicken broth and ham. So the sharks of the world are being destroyed to make ham flavored chicken soup with a slightly different texture. To get fins for shark fin soup, fishermen catch any shark by any means (longlining is the usual technique). Of the roughly 400 shark species known, 100 are caught for shark fin soup, and they include most of the larger species. But so valuable are their fins and so lacking the restrictions, that the young of large species get finned as well.

The combined weight of all of a shark's fins is only about a twentieth of its total weight. So to get a ton of fins requires killing and disposing of twenty tons of shark. It is estimated that somewhere between 40 and 70 (perhaps even as high as 100) million sharks are killed each year worldwide, a take that has caused shark populations everywhere to crash after about ten years of fishing. As successful as they are, sharks are devastated by heavy fishing pressure because they are slow growing, late maturing, and have few young each year (some species only reproduce every other year).

When a shark is caught and boated its fins are cut off, and the now finless animal tossed overboard. Commercial fishermen are in a hurry and sharks are hard to kill so the fishermen don't bother to kill them, they just slice off their fins. Unable to swim, but still alive the shark must slowly sink to the bottom where it presumably dies a terrible, lingering death from some unknown cause-infection, starvation, being picked to pieces while still alive by crabs, or by other scavengers, who knows what. A fisherman in New Jersey reported catching a shark that he figured must have escaped while it was being finned, for it still had its tail fin. The longline hook on which it had presumably been caught earlier and from which it must have been held while its other fins were sliced off it, was still in its mouth. This horrific practice is both incredibly cruel and a waste of marine resources.

Because they can be sold for so much, shark fins have been fished out in Asia. Shark meat now sells for $0.20/kg, whereas the fins are worth 850 times as much ($170/kg). In Hong Kong they can reach up to $500/kg, 2500 times as much as the meat. Having their fins sliced off while they are still alive, must therefore now be the fate of 98% of all sharks caught worldwide.

Here in PNG tuna fishers are permitted to take sharks as a by-catch, but they often target sharks instead of tuna, since a hold full of shark fins is worth a great deal more than a hold full of tuna. Back in mid February after complaints by local fishermen that ships were fishing too close to their reef off Alotau, a Taiwanese-registered mothership along with three longliners was detained and impounded at the main wharf in Port Moresby. The vessels had been licensed to catch tuna, but in just one of them, NFA enforcement officers found 50 tons of sharks and only two tons of tuna. Even though sharks are an acceptable by-catch for tuna fishers, this kind of ratio is clearly ludicrous. The problem comes from the fact that no fixed, legal ratio has been specified to dictate how much by-catch may be taken for how much catch. So fishermen who want to fin sharks go for a tuna license which gives them the right to catch as many sharks as they like along with the odd tuna. In many cases sharks constitute more than 90% of the "tuna" catch. The impounded vessels are an example: where sharks constituted over 96% of the catch. So it is really the tuna that is the by-catch in this operation.

A photo of sharks that have been finned.
Photo: Courtesy of the PNG National Fisheries Authority

It is clear that sharks cannot breed fast enough to keep up with the current demand. As a result, many shark species are now threatened with extinction. Finning has been banned in the Atlantic, but is growing fast in the Pacific. Countries such as the U.S. and Australia have moved to ban the practice. As usual, Japan is dragging its feet. Hopefully we will all soon realize that these animals cannot possibly reproduce fast enough to keep up with human advances in fishing technology. But will we realize soon enough? And meanwhile what kind of comment does shark finning make on our species? Of just how much casual cruelty is the human being capable? Where are the limits? Practices like shark finning seem to me to offer further evidence that the missing link between the ape and the human being is man.

And Oh Yes, I forgot to mention the final evidence of madness: the rising belief in Asian markets that powdered shark parts have aphrodisiac qualities. How tragic that species such as tigers and sharks should be destroyed because of a baseless hope that they can do something for which there are now proven drugs such as Viagra-drugs which actually do work and which would, I suspect, exceed any shark aphrodisiac users' wildest fantasies.

As Carl Safina noted during a visit to the Hong Kong shark fin market; [quote] "In my own wasteful throwaway society, we do not appreciate the real value of so many things. Here, so many things are wasted because they are valued in ways that are not real." [End quote]

It occurs to me that perhaps one of the most useful steps in conserving wildlife right now would be to make Viagra available to the Asian aphrodisiac market. It might require the kind of adjustment in price that was more or less forced on drug companies in order to make AIDs drugs available for developing nations at a cost the users could bear. But by this means the makers of Viagra might be able to save tigers, sharks, bears, Amazon River dolphins and a host of other species. Yes yes, I realize that what we don't need is an even faster rate of human population growth. But if anyone out there thinks that a man who is determined enough to drink a potion of powdered tiger bones is going to give up trying to have sex if that doesn't work for him, well… I suspect they better think again.

Thus ends this day.

Log by Roger Payne

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