1. What is shark finning?
Shark finning is the practice of cutting the fins off sharks after they are caught and then throwing the trunk, or carcass, of the animal (usually still alive), back into the sea. Since up to 95% of a shark is meat of a lower value, the practice of shark finning saves space on boats for the more valuable fins. This means that shark finning is a wasteful practice compared with other kinds of fishing. For example, by comparison, when tuna are caught, nearly all of their bodies are used in some way.
2. Why do some say shark-finning is cruel?
Many people consider shark-finning to be cruel and inhumane because the animal is usually still alive when its body is thrown back into the sea. Unable to swim, and therefore to breathe, the shark will generally suffocate to death slowly.
3. Why is shark-finning unsustainable?
Because only the fins are stored on the boats, far more sharks can be caught than if their entire bodies were being stored and landed (i.e. brought to shore). More sharks are being killed each year than can sustainably reproduce. Sharks have been on the planet for more than 400 million years, but in the last 15 years overfishing has sharply reduced their numbers1.
4. How do you define ‘sustainability’?
Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. For sharks specifically, this means not fishing the species to extinction so that the world’s marine ecosystems are potentially compromised for the future.
5. What’s the actual number of sharks killed each year?
Accurate estimates of sharks killed annually are difficult to ascertain given the amount of illegal, unregulated and unreported harvesting.
The best estimate of sharks killed annually can be found in a paper published in the Peer reviewed journal Ecology Letters in 2006 . In this paper, the authors estimate the total number of sharks traded annually worldwide (based on analysis of fins traded through Hong Kong) to be “in the range of 26-73 million per year (95% PI), with an overall median of 38 million per year” 1. Thus the best estimate is 38 million per year.
Given the value of fins compared to the flesh, it is likely that most sharks caught with fins that can be used in the fin trade, are used, given the fact that at least historically almost every country with a coastline exports shark fins to Hong Kong.
What is striking in the paper is the finding that official statistics (FAO) for global shark catches are likely to be underestimated possibly by as much as three to four fold. Which means that the situation facing shark populations is even worse than currently thought.
1 Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets, Shelley C. Clarke , Murdoch K. McAllister , E. J. Milner-Gulland , G. P. Kirkwood , Catherine G. J. Michielsens , David J. Agnew, Ellen K. Pikitch, Hideki Nakano and Mahmood S. Shivji
6. Why can’t sharks just breed more to replenish their numbers?
Being apex predators, it is natural for shark numbers to be low. Compared with other fish, sharks are slow growing and take years to mature – for example, the female Atlantic dusky shark doesn’t reproduce until at least 20 years old. Also, sharks do not always breed every year, bear relatively few young and have long gestation periods – the spiny dogfish carries her pups for nearly two years (which is one of the longest gestation periods of any animal). All of this makes shark populations highly vulnerable to over-fishing.
7. Is it sustainable to catch and land the whole shark?
No. Some countries have legislated that sharks can still be fished as long as the fins are landed still attached to the skin. Whilst this places some restriction on the number of sharks caught, it is not enough. It impossible to effectively police the open oceans or, indeed, the private docks where both unattached fins and shark catches can be landed illegally and under the radar of officials – so it is likely that estimates on shark catches are lower than the reality. Ultimately, regardless of whether the whole or just part of the shark is killed, many shark species are already globally threatened and, given that there are currently no sustainable shark fisheries either, the trade in shark products needs to stop now.
8. Can sharks be commercially farmed?
As of early 2011, there are no commercially sustainable shark fisheries anywhere in the world because of their slow reproduction rates. This means that sharks cannot be treated like any other commercially fished marine resource.
9. Are sharks really at risk of extinction?
Yes. As of 2010, IUCN data indicates that no less than 143 shark species are listed being globally threatened and thus at high risk of extinction now or in the near future (i.e. critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable)1. As of 2011, and despite increasing pressure from environmental lobbyists around the world, limited protection in the form of trade restrictions is in place for only three shark species – the whale shark, the basking shark, the great white shark.2
1 IUCN Redlist, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2010
2 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), 2009
10. Why is it important to conserve shark populations?
The main reason is because sharks play a vital role in the regulating the marine environment. Marine ecosystems are as delicate and complex as any other on our planet and we cannot predict the precise effects that eliminating sharks would have. As an example on the US Atlantic coast, a century long scallop fishery collapsed as a result of overfishing sharks. The sharks were predators of the cow nose ray who were in turn predators of the scallops. When the shark population declined dramatically there were fewer sharks to regulate the population of the scallops’ natural predator and, as a result, the cownose ray decimated the scallop population1).
What we do know is that, in addition to being a major source of food, our oceans help regulate the earth’s temperature and generate about 50% of the world’s oxygen. They are a precious resource and anything that might jeopardize their stability is simply not worth the risk.
Also, as the ecotourism sector grows, the issue of shark conservation makes economic sense: snorkelers and scuba divers pay large sums of money to enjoy the unique experience of viewing sharks in their natural habitat. In Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, the whaleshark tourism industry is estimated to be worth over US$10 million. Some countries rely heavily on such revenues – tourism is the largest industry in the Maldives and diving with sharks brings in US$2.3million. Donsol in the Philippines also has a burgeoning whaleshark tourism industry2
1 Myers et al, 2007 Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean by Ransom A. Myers, Julia K. Baum, Travis D. Shepherd, Sean P. Powers, Charles H. Peterson
11. Why is shark’s fin so in demand?
Shark’s fin occupies a special place in Chinese cuisine and culture and has been a symbol of wealth and prestige since the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Until relatively recently, shark’s fin soup was a luxury only affordable by the very wealthy. Today, ever more sophisticated fishing techniques and rising affluence in Asia (particularly in Hong Kong and China) has meant that sharks fin has become accessible to millions of consumers. It is most popularly served at wedding banquets or special occasions, as a symbol of the host’s wealth and status as well as being a mark of respect to guests . Given that Chinese wedding banquets can commonly accommodate over 200 guests, that’s a lot of shark fin! Corporate entertainment is also a key market, particularly for staff functions at Chinese New Year – although more and more companies are introducing shark-free policies in order to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility (CSR).
12. How does the HKSF expect to change a practice so deeply rooted in Chinese culture?
Through educating local audiences about the reality of the situation: our message is about sustainability not culture. More and more people in Hong Kong are joining the worldwide movement to take personal responsibility for protecting the environment. Some are motivated by a love of nature and animals, but others simply want the earth’s natural resources, including its seas and oceans, to stay clean and healthy for the benefit of ourselves and future generations. We believe that when the facts are known, Hong Kong people will choose to conserve the earth’s resources instead of destroy them. We have a chance to set a positive example and lead a trend in communities in China and elsewhere, and we believe that Hong Kong people will seize this opportunity.
13. Isn’t shark’s fin GOOD for the skin and joints?
There is no definitive scientific evidence that that shark’s fin has any unique nutritional or medicinal value. Claims that shark cartilage helps with joint problems or cancer are not medically proven, and supplements containing them are not accepted as effective by the food and drug administrations of any country. Even if sharks were able give us cures for serious human diseases, that would be an even more important reason to protect and preserve the species for the benefit of future generations.
14. Why do some say shark’s fin is BAD for your health?
This is a question of mercury toxicity. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin, known to affect male fertility and fetal development.Its increasingly found in seafood and, because sharks sit at the top of the marine food chain, they are known to accumulate high concentrations in their flesh. Trace metals and organochloride residues have also been found in the muscle, eggs, liver and kidneys of deep water shark species. One Hong Kong study found direct correlation between male subfertility and mercury levels from fish consumption1 in general and the US Food and Drug Adminstration recommends that pregnant women avoid eating shark2.
However, the mercury issue is a controversial one – different shark species in different waters will accumulate different levels of mercury. While there is ample evidence that mercury concentrates in protein and fat, we are not aware of definitive evidence that it accumulates in cartilage, i.e. the fins. However when processed the fins can be subject to several rounds of drying and bleaching and concerns have been raised as the impacts on health3.
HKSF’s view is that stopping the consumption of shark products is a matter of sustainability, not health.
1 Dickman, M.D. & Leung, K.M.C. (1998) Mercury and organochlorine exposure from fish consumption in Hong Kong. Chemosphere 37(5): 991-1015.
15. Aren’t sharks a threat to humans?
No! While sharks have a fearsome reputation, unprovoked shark attacks on humans are actually uncommon. In 2010, there were only 79 recorded cases worldwide of unprovoked shark attacks on humans, of which six were fatal1. Popular dramatization of sharks as a threat to humans is far out of proportion from the reality. In the United States, for example, the risk of being struck down by lightening is 30 times more than that of being killed by a shark2. Around the world, more beachgoers are killed or injured from dehydration, jellyfish stings and sunburn or while driving to and from the sea than they are by shark attacks.
1 International Shark Attack File, http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/iaf/2010summary.html, 2010
2 Florida Museum of Natural History,, www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/attacks/relarisklightning.htm
16. Is shark-finning illegal?
In some jurisdictions, finning at sea is banned. Most bans are enforced through the application of a fin-to-carcass weight ratio: this means that, when a shark catch is landed, the fins should only account for a specific per cent of the total catch weight, e.g. 5% , whilst the remainder must be carcasses. Some groups argue that the weight of fins allowed should be lower because the fins weigh less than 5% of the total body weight (i.e. a 5% limit would still allow finning to occur because more fins can be landed than would have come from the number of carcasses on board). Ultimately, however, whether landed with or without their fins, too many sharks are currently being killed for sustainable populations to survive.
Europe: in 2003, the EU adopted a regulation to ban finning at sea, but special permits can be obtained which allow it. The fin-to-carcass weight ratio is viewed as a loophole in the legislation, as is the allowance for permit.
USA: in 2010, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act which prohibits finning at sea and any boat from carrying shark fins without the corresponding number and weight of carcasses, and all sharks must be brought to port with their fins attached.
In addition to bans on finning, there are increasing moves to ban the sale of the shark fin products; such initiatives can be seen in Hawaii, Guam and the Mariana Islands and one is currently being proposed for California.
17. Does CITES (the UN Convention of Trade in Endangered Species) protect shark species?
No. CITES is a UN convention focused on the international trade of endangered species. When a species is recognized by the convention, restrictions are applied to the trade between countries, it does not regulate a country’s domestic catch. Despite the fact that the IUCN have determined that many shark species are recognized as globally threatened, only three species are listed on CITES.