Alarming Scale of Global Shark Fin Trade Revealed in New Photos

© Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group

Pew Environment Group this week released a series of photos that are simply jaw-dropping as they reveal the scale of shark fishing for fins. The group released a report earlier this year noting the world's 20 largest shark catchers, including Taiwan, which is where these photos were taken.

© Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
Bags of shark fins. In 2009 the Taiwanese-flagged fishing trawler, Chien Jiu 102, was seized at Cape Town harbor, South Africa with 1.6 tons of dried shark fins.

According to Pew, the images captured depict "fins and body parts of biologically vulnerable shark species, such as scalloped hammerhead and oceanic whitetip, being readied for market."

And it isn't hard to determine that this is just a snapshot of the larger picture of shark finning.

© Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
An assortment of shark fins. From 1985 to 1998, shark fin imports to Hong Kong and Taiwan increased by more than 214 percent and 42 percent, respectively; and between 1991 and 2000, trade in shark fins in the Chinese market grew by six percent a year.

“These images present a snapshot of the immense scale of shark-fishing operations and show the devastation resulting from the lack of science-based management of sharks, “said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group. “Unfortunately, since there are no limits on the number of these animals that can be killed in the open ocean, this activity can continue unabated.”

Taiwan has the fourth largest number of reported shark catches. It, along with Indonesia, India and Spain account for 35% of total global catches. Taiwan is reportedly instituting a ban on shark finning to go into effect next year; however, it is hard to say how that will be enforced if it is such a large industry right now.

As Mike noted earlier this year, "Since a whole shark takes a lot more space than just a shark fin, this means that the fishing boats should be able to catch fewer sharks before coming back to shore, and that shark fishing should be less profitable. But this will depend heavily on whether there are inspectors looking at catches and enforcing the law, and if the boats don't just bypass Taiwan and go dock at other ports to drop their fins."

It will take a serious investment in enforcement to have the ban really mean anything at all.

© Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
Many of these fins come from pelagic shark species. According to the IUCN, over 50 percent of pelagic sharks are Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction.

Pew Environment Group states, "The demand for shark fins, meat, liver oil, and other products has driven some populations of these animals to the brink of extinction. Up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the global trade in their fins. The International Union for Conservation of Nature assessed in its Red List of Threatened Species that 30 percent of shark populations around the world are Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction. Since sharks are top predators, their depletion also has risks for the health of entire ocean ecosystems."

Studies have shown that sharks can be worth far more alive than dead to a coastal community.

Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the University of Western Australia found that a single reef shark can contribute as much as $2 million over its lifetime to the economy of Palau because it is an attraction to shark divers and tourists, and it helps keep reefs healthy which is a benefit for both tourism and fishing.

However, sharks are not safe -- even in sanctuaries.

We have heard of so many wonderful strides in countries across the globe declaring waters safe for sharks. The world's first shark sanctuary was declared in Palau in 2009, followed by the Maldives in early 2010. Then Indonesia set aside the waters around an entire island, and this year Cocos Island dedicated waters to a sanctuary bigger than Yellowstone, Honduras coughed up over 92,000 square miles, followed by the Bahamas with 250,000 square miles. And finally, Micronesia has declared plans to create the world's largest sanctuary to date.

But it means nothing without enforcement, which we have seen first hand recently. Illegal boats were caught with over 350 dead sharks in the Galapagos where shark fishing is banned, and an estimated 2,000 sharks were slaughtered in the Malpelo wildlife sanctuary in Columbian waters.

© Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
This picture of over 3,500 shark fins provides a snapshot of a tiny percentage of the estimated 30 to 73 million sharks killed every year to supply the global shark fin industry.
Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group

To address the overfishing of sharks, the Pew Environment Group recommends that governments should immediately establish shark sanctuaries; end fishing of sharks for which management plans are not in place or that are endangered; devise national plans of action for conservation of sharks; and eliminate shark bycatch in fisheries.

These are goals that would go a long way to help shark numbers recover, and bring these important apex predators back from the edge of extinction. However, in reality we have a long way to go before we could get many governments to not only agree to these goals but also enforce them. Indeed, first we need to diminish the demand for shark fins and other shark products in the first place.

If there is demand, and money to be made, it will be an uphill battle. Some US states have already implemented bans on the shark fin trade, including Oregon, Hawaii, Washington and California. Toronto, Canada also has a ban in the works. More bans worldwide on possessing or selling shark fins, as well as significant education efforts about the importance of sharks are as important as any changes in fishing practices.

© Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
Shark carcasses, also known in the fishing industry as “logs”, are offloaded at a processing warehouse.
Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group

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Tags: Animals | Animal Welfare | Conservation | Fish | Fishing | longreads | Sharks

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