Course:EOSC270/2022/The Shark Fin Trade

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What is the problem?

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, with records indicating its importance as a banquet staple since ancient times. The noodle-like fibers seen in the image above are the elastin fibers of the fin, the main ingredient of shark fin soup. A bowl of premium-grade shark fin soup can cost up to $720, making shark fin one of the most expensive seafood products in the world[1].

What is the shark fin trade?

Sharks are part of the Chondrichthyes class of cartilaginous fishes, which have been around for at least 400 million years. Due to the rise of global fishing rates, high consumer demand and their intrinsically slow growth and reproductive rates, their populations have significantly declined over the years. A growing demand for shark fin in the Asian Market fuels the practice of shark finning, where the fins of sharks are removed before the entire animal’s body is discarded[2]. The shark fin trade alone is valued at approximately 400 million USD[3], and it is estimated that roughly 100 million sharks are caught and killed annually, with the shark fin trade being the main driver of shark fisheries[4].

What human actions cause the problem?

Consumption of shark fin dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), and has since been a treasured delicacy in many Asian cultures[4]. Today, in association with its label as a “luxury seafood,” shark fin soup is often served in formal banquets and important family gatherings as a form of demonstrating social standing[5].

Because the markets for shark meat, skin and cartilage are relatively small and of low value, the remaining carcass is often discarded post-finning. In the case of live sharks, the remainder of the shark body is often discarded into the sea alive, where it dies from excessive bleeding and suffocation[1]. Apart from the intentional, targeted finning of sharks by shark fisheries, a lot of sharks are also caught as by-catch in commercial longline fisheries. This is problematic as shark bycatch is often unregulated, resulting in large quantities of unreported and undocumented shark landings. According to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 94% of shark landings in the shark fin trade are unmanaged[6].

Elastin fibers used in shark fin soup are mainly derived from the dorsal, pectoral, and lower tail fins of sharks. Fins can differ in quality depending on the size of the fin and how they're processed, which account for their variable market prices[7].

Where does the problem occur?

Large sharks used for shark fin soup occupy the highest trophic level in both coral reef and seagrass environments. When these top predators are hunted, a trophic cascade is induced as the populations of species below them are no longer kept in check. As a result, meso-predator populations will increase and resource species will decrease, disturbing the delicate ecosystem balance[8].

Hong Kong is the world’s largest shark fin market[9], handling about 50% of the global shark fin trade. Data from 1998-2013 indicate that Hong Kong imports shark fin from 130 countries, with 50% of all imports sourced from Spain, Taiwan, Indonesia, UAE, Singapore and Japan[4]. Recent analyses from a study using DNA barcoding and species distribution modelling suggests that most finned sharks originate from Exclusive Economic Zones of coastal Australia, Indonesia, the United States, Brazil, Mexico and Japan[3].

How pervasive is the problem today?

Currently, there are no global shark finning regulations in place[10]. Although countries like Canada, the US, and Australia have established anti-finning legislations, the practice is still an ongoing issue in many parts of the world. Current analyses indicate that 48% of exploited shark populations are hunted above their rebound rate, and according to the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, 28% of currently assessed shark species are vulnerable to extinction[2].

How does this problem impact marine ecosystems?

Why are sharks important?

At Australia's northwest coast, a group of scientists sampled sharks at 3-4 sites on the outer reef slope from Scott Reefs in June 2003 and Rowley Shoals in October 2004. They found that shark population decrease had harmful effects on coral reefs. Mark Meekan, the team leader, reported that the Scott Reefs, where sharks were fished, had much greater mid-level predator numbers than the Rowley Shoals, where sharks were protected. Moreover, the team saw significantly more abundant herbivorous fishes at the protected Rowley Shoals than at the fished Scott Reefs[11].

Sharks being at risk of extinction, have great potential to disrupt the balance of marine ecosystems. This is because they are the apex predators of food webs and have great control over species in lower trophic levels. Not only do they compete with co-predators to maintain species diversity, but they also restrict the abundance, distribution, and life-history parameters of prey populations by selectively consuming the weaker fish, which minimizes diseases, improves genetic pools, and keeps all populations in check[12]. Although sharks live in all the major oceans of the world and thus play a vital role in the global ocean ecosystem, targeted sharks for shark finning tend to inhabit coastal regions, such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows, which become highly affected in particular[8].

How are coral reefs impacted?

Coral reefs are especially vulnerable due to their fragility and sensitivity to various environmental fluctuations. They require specific abiotic elements for survival, such as clear and clean water, sunlight, and ideal temperatures and salinity. Climate change and anthropogenic activities have placed additional stress on these ecosystems, as the reefs struggle to tolerate rising water temperatures, ocean acidification, destructive fishing practices, and coastal development[13].

In coral reefs, a reduction in the shark population due to finning triggers an increase in the meso-predator population. These species, such as skates, rays, groupers, and smaller sharks severely feed on prey species, leading to a massive decline in the herbivorous fish, teleost fish, and invertebrate populations[14]. Without herbivores to graze on the algae, the algae overgrow and suffocate the reef by depleting oxygen, making the reef susceptible to predator attack, coral bleaching, and storms. The vast diversity of species living in coral reefs becomes suffocated as well and vanishes with the degradation of their food sources, spawning grounds, and shelter[8].

What about seagrass meadows?

Seagrass meadows are constantly under direct pressure due to detrimental human behaviours. Trawling, dredging, boat anchoring, introducing invasive species, and producing agricultural or industrial run-off have caused these ecosystems to decline globally. Indirect pressures such as climate change, escalating severity of tropical storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels also pose significant risks for seagrass beds[15].

In addition to protecting coral reefs, sharks also contribute to healthier seagrass meadows. By feeding on and intimidating the herbivores that graze in these marine habitats, sharks ensure that turtles and other grazers are not overgrazing. In the absence of sharks, sea turtles and sea cows feed heavily on specific locations that have high quality seagrass beds, rapidly wiping out those plants. However, when sharks are present, the sea turtles and sea cows are intimidated and tend to roam over a broader range of seagrass. This reduces risks of overgrazing and destroying these carbon-storing habitats that many fish, shellfish, and aquatic birds exclusively live in[8].

What is the extent of the problem?

How extensive could the problem be?

These shark fins were found on display in a pharmacy in Yokohama for use in Chinese medicine. The view of sharks as a product contributes to the problem of shark finning[16].

Due to the fact that sharks are apex predators important to the functioning of the ecosystems they inhabit[17], any problem for sharks is a problem for the whole marine food web they are a part of[18]. Sharks are also more vulnerable to exploitation due to their life cycle of late maturation and slow reproduction[19]. As a result, measuring the true extent of the problem of the shark fin trade is not as simple as measuring a decrease in population size – this decrease may have long-lasting effects beyond prediction.

What has already occurred?

Globally, shark populations have declined by 71.1% from 1970 to 2018[20]. In the Central Pacific, Northwest Atlantic, Eastern United States, Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean, all but two species of sharks showed a relative population decrease over a time period within 1950-2005[21]. The primary reason for shark population decrease is overfishing[20], with the global catch of sharks in both 2000 and 2010 estimated to be over 1.4 million metric tons[2]. Already, decreased shark populations have been shown to cause cascading impacts within ecosystems. For example, in Northern California, overfishing of sharks that once controlled the size of the ray population, caused an overabundance in rays which resulted in the collapse of an entire scallop fishery[18].

Why was this allowed to occur?

The view of sharks as vicious predators with a thirst for human blood has been combated within the last decade. However, the persistent portrayal of sharks as a danger continues to discourage mobilization in protection of sharks[22].

The issue of shark-finning is not only ecological or economical, it is also cultural[23]. Within some Asian cultures, it is believed that a person can obtain some of the shark’s strength and power through consumption[24]. This places the value of sharks in Asian culture as purely within medicine and traditional culinary practices[4]. Concurrently, within Western media, sharks tend to be vilified as savage human-devouring monsters, as most famously exemplified in the 1975 movie Jaws. Each of these factors place more value in sharks dead instead of alive, and as such can complicate conservation efforts[25].

What is the future prognosis?

Recently, there has been a shift towards protecting sharks. The cultural view of sharks has moved from being a culinary delicacy to a living creature, and from a societal perspective, from being a feared predator to an important marine animal[25]. Some countries have implemented protections for sharks such as regulations on species, quantities, and locations. However, in 2001, only 15 of 125 shark-fishing nations had banned or regulated shark finning. While this number has increased, finning still persists due to poor regulation and corruption[1].

Shark rebound rates have averaged to about 4.9% per year while exploitation rates have ranged from 6.4% to 7.9%[2]. Consequently, shark populations have been depleted beyond their rebound rate every year, making their continued depletion to this day debilitating[21]. Some shark populations have already been reduced to levels they may not come back from[2], rendering the current protective measures insufficient for the extent of the problem.

Given the impact, what are the solutions?

Asian celebrities participated in the campaign "I'm FINished with Fins" initiated by Shark Savers.[26]
The film Sharkwater documented the story of sharks' lives and how human poaching impacted the ecosystems they inhabit.[27]

What is the most effective action?

A recent study has shown that total shark mortality rates are not reducing and will not unless a more influential international agreement is made[28]. One efficient way to reduce total shark finning activities is through government regulations[20]. For instance, Palau was the first country to designate its territorial ocean as a shark conservation area in 2009, with a complete ban on shark fishing[2]. Several countries have recently made progress in legislation on shark finning and trades. Canada, as the leading importer of shark fins in North America, enacted the Fisheries Act in June 2019 to prohibit the import and export of shark fins[28]. Moreover, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (SFSEA) was passed by the United States Senate in June 2021, forbidding the sale of shark fins and fin-containing merchandise. Finally, it is also important to recognize Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, which can be determined by inspecting the Unique Vessel Identifier (UVI)[29].

From the above, it is evident that the global community has perceived the importance of shark conservation, and has protected a variety of endangered sharks by establishing constructive regulations.

How can we raise awareness?

To combat the problem of the shark fin trade, different countries have used various methods to raise awareness. For example, a Malaysian non-profit organization called ‘Shark Savers’ initiated a campaign to protest against the trade. Their goal was to encourage the general public to make similar commitments[26]. Sharkwater is a Canadian documentary that highlighted the impacts of shark finning on marine ecosystems. It also aimed to raise awareness for the protection of sharks, spur the reformation of government policy, and inspire a change in societal perspectives towards shark sustainability[27].

What can we do moving forward?

As the shark fin trade is still an ongoing issue facing marine ecosystems, it is critical to rebuild the shark population to its former state[30]. Similar to sharks, whales also have slow growth and low reproduction rates[20]. They were previously on the verge of extinction until a restriction on whaling was implemented in 1986[2]. Since then, their populations have steadily recovered, which gives hope that shark populations can also improve.

As mentioned previously, the most effective action is government regulations. It is important to continually develop practical plans not only locally but also globally. Other potential solutions include advocating for the safety of shark communities from a sustainable viewpoint, reducing consumer demand by replacing with synthetic substitutes, and eliminating shark bycatch. Shark bycatch can be reduced by establishing laws or implementing the use of specialized fishing equipment with modifications on hook size and mesh design that target specific species to avoid unintentional fishing[31].

If countries and individuals work diligently for shark conservation, it is possible to restore shark populations and thus the health of marine ecosystems.


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