Campaign Shark: STOP, Save the shark!
When you visualize a shark you don’t immediately think of a vulnerable animal. For 400 million years these streamlined predators have held their place at the top of the food chain. But this situation has drastically changed. Sharks have become the prey of an insatiable predator: man. Over the past 20 years over fishing has caused a dramatic reduction of shark populations worldwide, in many species over 65% of all individuals haven been caught, in some species this percentage is even higher. Every year a 100 million sharks are caught in fisherman’s nets.
The most important cause for the rise in demand for sharks is the increase in the consumption of shark fin soup in Asia. Until recently this was a luxury only available to the upper classes. But because increasing prosperity mainly in China a new middle class is emerging who can now afford luxury items like shark fin soup too. Approximately half of all fins that are caught throughout the world are traded through Hong Kong. By analyzing the records of these traders we can obtain an indication of the size of the trade and its origin. In 2002 most fins where imported from Indonesia, Spain, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates. China is by far the largest buyer. Two countries with a large finning industry that don’t show up in the data from Hong Kong are Taiwan and the Philippines. The fishermen from these countries trade directly with their own mainland so it is difficult to obtain information about the scale of this fin trade.
There are three ways in which shark fins can end op in the hold of a fishing boat. First of all there are the fisheries that specifically target sharks for their fins. These ships will spend months in international waters returning with several tons of shark fins. The fins are obtained by slicing them off on board while the shark is still alive. The mutilated animal is then thrown back into the ocean where it dies a slow and painful death. The second way is by ending up as by catch in other fisheries. Quite often sharks will get caught on the bait meant for other large fish like tuna and swordfish. Fishermen used to cut these sharks loose but nowadays they cut off their fins to make some extra cash. Finally sharks are poached inside national parks and other marine sanctuaries. This happens mostly in Australia and Middle America. Although this is not a broad scale practice the consequences are severe. Many shark species use these sheltered areas as breading grounds so the individuals caught are either juveniles or gravid females which seriously damages the population structure.
A victim of its own success
Because of their life history sharks are especially vulnerable to over fishing. Like other large predators they have a sophisticated reproductive system. You can compare their life cycle to that of whales and dolphins: they take a long time to mature (whale sharks reach maturity after 15 years) and produce only a small number of offspring (most sharks produce between 3 and 5 pups per year). This is why, unlike other commercial fish species like cod or herring, shark populations take a very long time to recover from over fishing.
How to protect sharks
Only recently international action has been taken to prevent sharks from being fished to extinction. In 1999 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations launched an International Plan of Action for Sharks (IPAO-sharks). In his manifest member states are asked to prepare legislation in which they seek to “minimize waste and discards from shark catches.” In a response to this several countries have implemented laws that seek to control the finning practiced in their local waters. But many of these laws prove to be ineffective in the field to stop the elusive fin trade. An increasing number of organizations is now calling for a total ban on finning sharks at sea. If it were mandatory to bring the entire carcass into the harbor a large number of sharks could be saved because the revenue on the fins would decrease dramatically. In 2003 this issue was addressed before the General Assembly of the UN. Because of protest by countries with a large interest in the fin trade it ended as a weak resolution.
And outside politics?
Legislation needs to be based on factual evidence, it is therefore of vital importance that more research is done on the life history and population structure of sharks. It is equally important that the existing laws are implemented properly. This can be problematic in developing countries because they don’t have the knowledge and the funds needed to work effectively. These countries need funding from third parties to help them protect their sharks. The last and maybe most important work to be done is increasing public awareness on the subject of shark finning. Informing people and discouraging them to eat shark fin soup is a key factor to bring down the demand for fins. An awareness campaign like this was held in Thailand after which shark fin soup consumption decreased with at least 10%.
- Seasheperdlog #50 2002
- Sharkfinning – unrecorded wastage on a global scale, Wildaid, 2003
- European Shark Fisheries Update, C. James, 2001
- Shark Trust Finning Facts
- East Asian Fin Trade, IUCN Shark Specialist Group, 1998
- Shark Information, Shark News, 2003
- More Sharks on Red List, IUCN-SSC, 2004
- Shark Specialist Group Finning Statement
- Marine Reserve Project Update, Wildaid, March 2004 Newsletter
- Shark Product Trade in Hong Kong and mainland China, Traffic East Asia, 2004