Shark finning is the act of slicing the fins off a shark at sea, often while it is still alive and discarding its body at sea. Sharks then sink to the ocean floor and suffocate or bleed to death. A shark’s carcass is thrown overboard as it has far less dollar value than its fins; carcasses use storage space on boats so taking only fins means more money for fishermen.
(The term ‘shark’ refers to all elasmobranch species including rays. Rhinorays secure highest fin prices so banning the transport of fins must apply to all elasmobranchs so the trade is not just reassigned to a ray species).
Why are sharks so important?
The act of finning a live shark has to be one of the worst acts of animal cruelty in recent times. Studies estimate 63 – 273 million sharks are killed each year  so the cruelty alone is a huge moral and ethical issue. In addition, sharks are apex predators and keystone species. By taking them out of the environment shark finning causes a cascade of trophic level collapses in already fragile ecosystems.
Several case studies show complete reef degradation plus drastic population declines in species used for fishing or tourism industries.
Sharks prey on weak, dying, or dead members of populations contributing to genetic and physical health in the remaining prey population.
Sharks have slow growth rates, low fertility rate, and late sexual maturity, which means populations take much longer to recover.
They lack protection from overfishing and the finning industry which is very concerning as this equates to high vulnerability and sensitivity to the impacts of humans .
Well over 100 species of sharks and rays which are collectively referred to as “sharks” are listed by the IUCN as threatened, only 46 of which are protected from illegal trade by CITES
Blue sharks are the most commonly killed shark (17 %) for the fin trade, but other species include Shortfin Mako, Silky, Sandbar, Bull, Hammerhead and Thresher .
Whale sharks and Leopard sharks are also highly sought after due to the size and patterns on their fins.
Once shark fins are separated from their carcass, it becomes much harder to identify the species. This drastically hampers management and protection strategies . DNA testing is the only reliable method to identify a species for its conservation status and the legality of the catch but this is expensive and time consuming.
Why are sharks being killed?
Souvenirs, cosmetics ingredients, meat for human consumption sold commonly as flake and meat for animal consumption, used in both pet food and cattle feed, all play a role in why sharks are being killed.
But fuelling the shark finning industry and the biggest threat is shark fin soup. In SE Asia, it is a status symbol of luxury and affluence, served on special occasions as weddings and banquets.
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan are the main consumers of shark fin soup.
It is good to see that through public awareness campaigns and conservation groups educational work, China’s consumption is on the decline . It has even banned shark fin soup at all government functions. However, China’s decrease in consumption is offset by expanding and emerging markets in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand – so a push for airlines to stop fin transportation is vital for protecting sharks.
Shark fins only provide texture but no taste nor nutritional value. A pound of dried shark fin can sell for up to $400, and a bowl of shark fin soup is worth $50-$200 . The fins of critically endangered rhinorays can fetch nearly US$1,000/kg .
Shark meat and fins are incredibly toxic – as pollutants, like lead, mercury and arsenic – biomagnify from flesh to flesh ingesting prey that was already contaminated with plastics and pollutants. Some shark meats have recorded levels at quantities higher than that considered ‘safe’ for human consumption [8 & 9]. Other pollutants, such as the neurotoxin BPAA have been linked to neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS .
In summary, the shark finning industry is not only terrible for sharks, our own health, but also the health of our Ocean!
What is the ‘fins attached’ policy?
You may hear that shark finning is banned in many places around the world, including the UK and EU, however what is meant by this is that either a fin:carcass ratio or a ‘fins naturally attached’ policy is in place.
The former means that there can be only a limited number of fins on board correlating to the number of shark bodies on board, while the latter means that fins can’t be cut at sea at all as sharks have to be landed with their fins still naturally attached to the carcass, this limits the number of sharks a vessel can kill because entire sharks take up limited storage space .
Ecologically this helps as, theoretically, less sharks are killed each fishing trip however it does not regulate the import, export and trade of the fins within countries’ borders and there are many loopholes. If fins (not attached to a carcass) arrive at ports on non-fishing vessels they are exempt from the policy as they are regarded as imports.
Many countries issue permits allowing fleets to continue cutting off fins on board despite the fins attached policies being in place so long as the fleets operate a fin:carcass weight ratio, usually around 5%. These permits are regularly contested as their regulation is complicated, with the fin:carcass ratio described widely as an inadequate tool for preventing finning. This is due to differences in fin cutting techniques and variability among shark species’ fin sizes and values.
Vague and inadequate wording in policy writing is often exploited, with lack of necessary details such as whether the ratio applies to wet (fresh) or dried fins and whether the carcass is dressed (head and guts still attached) or undressed (head and guts removed, usually thrown overboard) .
These variables make a huge difference to the weight of catches therefore a weight-based ratio is almost impossible to police. The removal of fins during processing on land is not considered shark finning , and countries operating a fins attached policy continue to perpetuate the shark finning trade even though they have “banned shark finning”. Both strategies are almost impossible to enforce due to the lack of surveillance of fishing activities when at sea.
This is why campaigns such as FlyWithoutFins, Your Voice Matters (USA), Finspire Change UK and Stop Finning EU are so important.
While you are here…. sign up to these campaigns which oblige governments to address these issues:
- Finspire Change (UK citizens ACHIEVED – now write to your MPs to persuade them to pass this)
- Stop Finning (EU citizens please sign this initiative that forces EU to address the issue on 1m signatures )
- Your Voice Matters (US citizens)
- Ban the Trade of Shark Fins in the U.S. (Sep 2020: The state Senate has passed SB680, a ban on the import, export, and sale of shark fins in Florida (but allow 5 years for businesses to phase out.)
Eliminating the carriage of fins as air cargo is an important step in shark conservation. In air cargo, it is hard to know whether fins are harvested illegally through the barbaric act of finning OR legally by complying with fins naturally attached regulations. And in many parts of the world, finning is not even banned and not considered illegal. It is also impossible to inspect each cargo shipment to confirm whether these include fins belonging to endangered or protected species (for which trade is regulated by CITES).
As such, airlines are profiting from a destructive and often illegal industry that butchers millions of sharks annually and fuels the increasing loss of marine biodiversity and the very survival of our Ocean and our Planet.
- Worm, B., Davis, B., Kettemer, L., Ward-Paige, C.A., Chapman, D., Heithaus, M.R., Kessel, S.T. and Gruber, S.H., 2013. Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks.Marine Policy, 40, pp.194-204. http://wormlab.biology.dal.ca/publication/view/worm-etal-2013-global-catches-exploitation-rates-and-rebuilding-options-for-sharks/
- Strickland, Jessica. “A Brief Look at Human Impacts on Sharks.” (2017).
- Clarke, S.C., Magnussen, J.E., Abercrombie, D.L., McAllister, M.K. and Shivji, M.S., 2006. Identification of shark species composition and proportion in the Hong Kong shark fin market based on molecular genetics and trade records.Conservation Biology, 20(1), pp.201-211
- Biery, L. and Pauly, D., 2012. A global review of species‐specific shark‐fin‐to‐body‐mass ratios and relevant legislation. Journal of fish biology, 80(5), pp.1643-1677.
- Vallianos, C., Sherry, J., Hofford, A. and Baker, J., 2018. Sharks in Crisis Evidence of Positive Behavioral Change in China as New Threats Emerge. WildAid, San Francisco.
- Jarvis, J.L., 2019. Shark fin soup: Collective imagination in the transnational public sphere. Global Media Journal: Canadian Edition, 11(1).
- Barcia, L.G., Argiro, J., Babcock, E.A., Cai, Y., Shea, S.K. and Chapman, D.D., 2020. Mercury and arsenic in processed fins from nine of the most traded shark species in the Hong Kong and China dried seafood markets: The potential health risks of shark fin soup. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 157, p.111281.
- Hammerschlag, N., Davis, D.A., Mondo, K., Seely, M.S., Murch, S.J., Glover, W.B., Divoll, T., Evers, D.C. and Mash, D.C., 2016. Cyanobacterial neurotoxin BMAA and mercury in sharks. Toxins, 8(8), p.238.
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