Most Sharks Killed for Fins Are at Risk of Extinction

The fins are used to make a high-end soup.

Blue Shark In Blue Water
Blue sharks are sometimes killed for their fins. by wildestanimal / Getty Images

In a gruesome practice, sharks are sometimes hunted for their fins. When caught, the animal’s fins are carved off and the rest of the shark is often tossed back into the water to die.

The fins are used in traditional Chinese medicine and made into soup. A new study finds more than two-thirds of the sharks that are hunted and used in this global fin trade are at risk of going extinct.

“Shark fins are considered a delicacy and high-end product in Southeast Asia to prepare shark fin soup, a traditional dish served in big events and social gatherings. It is a symbol of wealth,” study author Diego Cardeñosa, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida International University, tells Treehugger.

Researchers were curious which species of shark were most often being killed for their fins.

They studied 9,820 shark fin trimmings from markets in Hong Kong from 2014 to 2018. Using DNA analyses, they were able to determine which fins came from which species of shark. They discovered 86 different species and 61 of those are threatened with extinction.

“This highlights that demand for shark fins is ultimately what is driving many of these species to extinction and that many coastal species that do not have any sort of national, regional or international protection are being largely affected by international trade,” Cardeñosa says. “This conservation crisis demands the attention of stakeholders and policymakers to revert these trends and set regulatory and management actions that benefit these important marine predators.” 

The research was recently published in Conservation Letters.

Most Hunted Species

The majority of the fins in these markets came from the blue shark (Prionace glauca), a species that is classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Nine of the remaining top 10 sharks they found were also considered threatened with extinction by the IUCN. Those species include silky sharks, hammerheads, makos, and threshers.

The greatest number of species that are taken for their fins reside in coastal waters. The researchers warn that without management measures, these sharks could become extinct.

“Our results highlight future approaches that can be used to revert some of these trends including international trade regulations and fisheries management actions at the national level such as fishing gear restrictions, catch limits, marine protected areas, together with socioeconomic studies of coastal fishing communities to understand and determine which of these actions can have the largest impacts in different locations,” Cardeñosa says. 

Shark Fin Trade Laws

Since 2000, some countries such as the United States, have passed laws that ban the fin trade but the practice is largely unregulated globally and laws are difficult to enforce.

Shark fin sales are banned in 14 U.S. states but state-level laws don't prohibit fins from being imported into the country. Shark fins are imported into the U.S. from countries that don't have bans such as China, India, and Indonesia.

Shark finning kills an estimated 100 million sharks each year, according to Shark Stewards, an international nonprofit working to save sharks and their habitat.

The group points out that, “The high value and increased market for shark fins is creating huge incentive for fishermen to take the fins and discard the animal, leaving room in the ship’s hold for the more valuable meat of the tuna or swordfish. Shark finning is wasteful, inhumane, and unsustainable.”

The organization also notes that the fight against finning is not an attack on Asian culture. Instead, they call it "an attack on an unsustainable fishing practice and trade."

Shark fin soup is linked with prestige and status.

Shark Stewards says: "The problem is simple economics: increasing affluence creates increased demand. This demand is exceeding the supply, which is creating a positive feedback loop, making the shark fins more difficult to obtain, and increasing the price, making the dish more expensive, increasing the prestige. This in turn motivates fishermen to obtain shark fins from a steadily diminishing source of sharks. Many countries have had practices associated with their cultures that were recognized as harmful or unethical and were stopped to protect wildlife."

View Article Sources
  1. "Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey." Smithsonian.

  2. "Shark Finning and Shark Fin Facts." Shark Stewards.

  3. Cardeñosa, Diego, et al. "Two Thirds of Species In a Global Shark Fin Trade Hub Are Threatened With Extinction: Conservation Potential of International Trade Regulations for Coastal Sharks." Conservation Letters, 2022, doi:10.1111/conl.12910

  4. "Blue Shark." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2018.

  5. study author Diego Cardeñosa, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida International University