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LatestPhoto
The shark fin trade is difficult to control even when certain species are protected. Last year, Odyssey crew members were offered a whale shark fin for sale in Male. The crew reported the incident to the Maldivian authorities.
Photo : Chris Johnson

March 1, 2004
Shark Finning - A Global Threat to Sharks
Real Audio Report
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Maldives.

A few weeks ago, Chris Johnson and I were in Singapore and took the opportunity to meet with our friends at WildAid, in particular Victor Wu. Victor's work consists primarily of raising awareness about sharks and their global decline due to the trade in their fins.

Victor Wu - WildAid:
    "My name is Victor Wu, I work for an organization called Wild Aid as the Shark Program Coordinator. Wild Aid is a non-profit, international conservation organization that works to protect threatened and endangered wildlife. Some of the species we try to highlight in our program include, tigers, rhinoceros, bears, elephants, marine turtles and sharks."

Genevieve Johnson:

Shark finning is defined as the removal of a shark's fins onboard a boat and the discarding of the remainder of the shark at sea. The animal is sometimes alive during this process.

Why on earth would anyone undertake such a bizarre and inherently cruel practice? The answer, of course, is money. Make no mistake - this is a lucrative business. The fins are highly prized in a delicacy known as shark fin soup. A single bowl is sold for over US $100 in Hong Kong.

Traditionally regarded as 'trash' fish by fisherman and a menace to fishing gear, sharks were rarely targeted. Presumably the limited number of sharks landed as bycatch (non target species), was enough to supply the limited fin soup markets of Asia. However, the rapid expansion of East Asian economies, particularly that of mainland China, is driving the demand for shark fin soup. What was once a rare and expensive delicacy is now standard fare in many places. This market is set to dwarf the previous major markets in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore combined.

Victor Wu - WildAid:

LatestPhoto
Thousands of shark fins are dried out on racks in Taiwan.
Photo : Courtesy of WildAid
    "The culture of shark fin consumption dates back to the 4th Century BC in Southern China. Back then, shark fin was only a dish afforded by the elite and privileged classes.

    Today, a lot of Chinese feel that they want to have shark fin soup or the rare dishes so they can prove to themselves that they are living like the emperors and noble classmen. They can show that they have made it to a certain economic level and can afford it for themselves and especially their friends. They can flaunt their wealth and social status."

Genevieve Johnson:

In 2003, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared - "The reported volume of trade has more than doubled in the last 20 years, while prices have more then tripled." The result is a massive upswing in the international fin trade, prompting fisherman worldwide to target sharks for their fins and to remove the fins of sharks caught as bycatch in other fisheries. Fin traders have systematically spread the word that fins are valuable to fisherman the world over. An industry previously limited to one region and certain species has exploded to become global in nature and involve all shark species. Traders will even supply equipment and monetary advances in an effort to secure their prize."

So why don't the fisherman keep the entire shark? Shark meat is considered inferior to that of most commercially exploited fish species such as tuna and billfish (marlin, swordfish and sailfish). There is limited space in the hold of fishing vessels and the money to be made from the meat of sharks is not comparable to the fins. Therefore the valuable fins of many more sharks can be taken and stored if the rest of the animal is discarded.

Shark finning is a practice that occurs offshore and out of sight of all but the crew, who benefit directly from the collection of fins. Data on shark finning is difficult to obtain. What we do know is that finning does not discriminate by species, age or size.

According to the (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group -

"An initial comparison of some shark landings data and Hong Kong fin import data indicate a significant mismatch (based on fin to body ratios for shark carcasses). The conclusion we draw is that tens of millions of sharks missing from the landings data of many nations are appearing in Hong Kong. Some of this mismatch may be due to underreporting of shark landings, but observer data from high seas fisheries and reports of fin fisheries in developing countries indicate that many millions of sharks are being finned and discarded at sea."

LatestPhoto
Victor is one of the many dedicated staff at WildAid. His primary mission is to raise awareness about shark finning and to promote the understanding that when the buying stops, the killing can to.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Victor Wu - WildAid:

    "The main countries involved in the shark fin trade come from two categories, one is the producing countries and one is the consuming countries. On the producing side you have Spain, one of the biggest shark fin producing countries, also Indonesia, India and several countries in Central and South America. On the consumer end, the main countries include Hong Kong, Mainland China, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan."

Genevieve Johnson:

A number of individual nations are attempting to control finning by enacting legislation that demands carcasses from finned sharks be kept onboard. A select few have banned the practice outright. Another glimmer of hope for sharks occurred in 2002, when for the first time two species of shark were listed as endangered. Victor Wu explains.

Victor Wu - WildAid:

    "Before the year 2002, no shark species that were protected or restricted or regulated in any way what so ever. [However], at the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Chile in 2002, two shark species were listed for protection. These two species were the basking shark and the whale shark. However, they are not protected out right, an Appendix 2 listing means a limited trade is still allowed."

Genevieve Johnson:

Even when a species such as the whale shark is listed as protected, this does not mean that international law can always be enforced. The whale shark fin fishery in Taiwan is an example.

Victor Wu - WildAid:

    "[Although not a CITES country,] there is a national law in Taiwan that dictates that one is not allowed to trade in any Appendix listed species, and whale sharks are actually on Appendix 2 now. However, the Fisheries Administration in Taiwan has decided to exempt whale sharks from this law, and they continue to hunt for whale sharks in their national waters."
LatestPhoto
Dried fins for sale in a shop in Singapore. The large fin is from a basking shark - a protected species under the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Photo : Chris Johnson

Genevieve Johnson:

According to the article - "High mercury levels in shark fins" - published in Shark News, Dec 1996, fins sold by retailers in Hong Kong and tested in the United States were found to contain up to 5.84 parts per million (ppm) of mercury. Hong Kong's maximum permitted level of mercury contamination in foodstuffs is 0.5 ppm. Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Hong Kong Consumer Council issued warnings in January 2000 relating to levels of contamination in shark products. The FDA warned pregnant women that mercury levels in shark meat could be high enough to harm the nervous systems of human fetuses. A report by the Hong Kong Consumer Council reported that at least five brands of shark liver oil capsules was contaminated with PCB's (Polychlorinated biphenyls).

Unfortunately the level of toxicants found in shark meat is not deterring consumers from buying it. Currently fin traders have no immediate economic incentive to conserve sharks. However, while many fishermen deny that supply is becoming problematic, it seems inevitable that the decline in shark stocks will soon have a negative effect on the trade, if it has not already done so.

Victor Wu - WildAid:

    "Awareness about wildlife conservation in Singapore, or in the rest of Asia, is relatively low in comparison to many Western countries. To many Asians, we feel that if you want to conserve the environment you have got to reach a certain affluence and level of development before you can even consider environmental protection. Generally speaking, environmental protection and environmental conservation is something that only the rich can afford."

Genevieve Johnson:

There are many factors contributing to the global decline in shark populations. There is no doubt that finning is a major and entirely unnecessary contributor. Finning is also contrary to the principles of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Code of conduct for responsible fisheries, and to the spirit of the preamble to the United Nations (UN) Law of the Sea, which takes into account the interests of mankind as a whole. The dumping of millions of shark bodies at sea has resulted in significantly lower catches in many developing countries where fisheries are sustained by sharks. Food security in many developing countries, particularly in eastern India and along the east and west coasts of Africa is threatened by increasing demand for shark fin soup. Shark finning demands 95% of a valuable protein source be thrown away. This is a luxury that sharks and those that depend on their meat cannot afford.

Recent research in the Northwest Atlantic - one of the only regions where comprehensive studies on sharks is carried out, showed steep declines in several shark populations in the past 8 - 15 years. It is estimated that since 1986, hammerheads have declined by 89%, thresher sharks by 80%, great white sharks by 79% and tiger sharks by 65%. All recorded shark species (with the exception of makos) have declined by more than 50%. There is no data at all in many areas where sharks are targeted. A declining catch indicates the potential collapse of a species. Shark fin traders are now plundering the few remaining pristine areas, including the Marine Parks of the Galapagos, Palau, Fiji and Costa Rica. The authorities have few resources with which to intervene.

So is it too late to save sharks from total annihilation? As long as there are still sharks in the sea, it is never too late, but we must act now. In 1999 the UN FAO took the first step and developed an International Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA - Sharks). It recommended that member states implement national plans of action seeking to minimize waste and discards by requiring the retention of sharks from which fins are removed.

Currently, landing fins and sharks separately is permitted in most countries, however, this leaves room for cheating; it also makes collecting catch data more difficult as many species are identifiable by their attached fins. Several countries have introduced finning regulations, but so far only Costa Rica and Australia require whole shark landings. Unfortunately the efforts of many nations to prohibit finning are undermined by the fact that sharks can still be finned on the high seas without restraint, and in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ's) and coastal waters of many individual nations. Where sharks may be protected in the waters of one nation, they may swim into the waters of another or into international waters and be finned legally. The best way to ensure protection for the maximum number of sharks is to enact a ban on finning within the EEZ of coastal nations and in international waters, while making it mandatory for animals to be landed onshore with fins attached.

LatestPhoto
WildAid developed and distributed these cards for Chinese wedding celebrations. The caption inside the card reads in Chinese and English -
"Dear Family and Friends,
As you may have noticed, we have decided not to serve shark fin soup at our wedding celebration today. We have taken this decision because we have learned that many shark species today are near extinction, and that we find the practice of shark finning to be cruel. We would like to contribute our small part to help save this magnificent animal. We sincerely hope that you will respect our decision. As an alternative to shark fin soup, we have requested a different specially prepared soup for you.
Please enjoy."
Photo : Chris Johnson

Some fisherman argue that a ban on shark finning is pointless, as the sharks will die anyway once caught on the line or in nets. However, data from the Hawaiian based tuna and swordfish longline fleet showed that 86% of sharks taken as bycatch are still alive when landed on deck. Research on Brazilian longline fisheries showed 88% of sharks alive when landed on deck. Taking into account that some individuals would be mortally wounded upon release, a very large percentage of sharks would survive if they were not finned.

Diving with sharks is becoming increasingly popular, bringing millions of tourist dollars to many developing and developed countries. Here in the Maldives, diving is the main attraction and it is estimated that over 60% of visitors dive. Some resorts report up to 90%. The government is well aware that fishing and tourism are entirely dependent on the preservation of the marine environment. The ongoing revenue from tourism far outweighs the short-term gains of finning, that creates a handful of millionaires in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Recently, divers from many part of the world have reported a decline in shark sightings, some have reported seeing the seabed "littered" with the carcasses of finned sharks.

Individuals can help make a difference by being responsible consumers. Support sustainable fisheries, always ask questions and don't eat at restaurants that serve shark fin soup. The Maldives supported a whale shark fin fishery until 1995; fortunately today the practice is illegal. However, finning is a global problem that requires a concerted international effort that will bring about a global solution.

Victor Wu - WildAid

    "WildAid tries to raise public awareness about shark conservation mainly through media. We try to advertise our conservation message - "When the buying stops the killing can too" to the widest possible audience."

    "I hate to sound very bleak... My prognosis of the long term shark conservation is that unless countries act today, and they must act today, in order for sharks to persist into the next century or even for the next 20 years. On the consumer side, I believe that through education, we can convince people to opt for alternatives and not have shark fin soup."

Resources:

  • The End of the Line? - WildAid 2001. WildAid : www.wildaid.org
  • Julia K. Baum, Ransom A. Myers, Daniel G Kehler, Boris Worm, Shelton J. Harley, Penny A. Doherty. -
    Collapse and Conservation of shark populations in the Northwest Atlantic.
    Science, Vol. 299, 17th January 2003.
  • Russell Dunn, M.M.A, Assistant Director, Ocean Wildlife Campaign, Washington DC. Testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans. 21st October, 1999.

Links:

The crew of the Odyssey would like to thank Victor Wu of WildAid for his assistance with this report.

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

 
 
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