Shark Week: An Explanation of Shark Finning

shark photo

Photo by Karendalzeil via Flickr CC

Shark finning is a brutal practice. A shark is caught, its fins are cut off, and the still-living shark is tossed back overboard to drown or bleed to death. The wasteful, inhumane practice is done to satisfy a demand for shark fins used primarily for soup but also for traditional Chinese medicine. The fins can catch a handsome price on the market; the meat on the other hand is far less valuable, so fishermen toss it overboard to save space for more fins. Between being caught as bycatch, hunted by sport fishermen, and fished for their fins, sharks are teetering dangerously close to extinction. If these apex predators go, so too does the balance of the entire ocean. Not only is shark finning an intensely wasteful and harmful practice, it's also essentially pointless since shark fins have no nutritional or medicinal value. And they're practically flavorless. Yet, finning continues, to the point that these animals so vital to the ecological balance of our oceans are about to be wiped out completely.

What's So Great About Shark Fins?

Really, nothing. They have no nutritional value and are practically tasteless. Also they contain large amounts of mercury, which is concentrated in the shark's body as it is in many large predator fish species. When it comes to shark fin soup, all the flavor comes from the broth, which is expensive and time-consuming to make. The piece of fin -- usually just a thin strand similar to a noodle -- is added just for texture and novelty. According to the book Demonfish, many restaurant owners don't even want to make the soup because the hassle isn't worth the slim profit margin. Yet, diners are demanding the menu item more and more -- and few seem to think switching to a substitute (similar to fake crab meat) is a smart solution.

shark fin soup photo

Photo by relgar

Still, shark fin soup is part of Asian culture, particularly in China, as a meal eaten during celebrations among the wealthy, or to impress business associates. But with China's economy rapidly growing, more people can afford to buy this symbol of a luxurious life and the demand for shark fins is increasing. Unfortunately, this wreaks havoc among shark populations globally.

The shark fin is a status symbol and a mark of tradition, not a nutritious meal -- nor a sustainable one.

How Serious A Threat is Shark Finning?

Finning is responsible for the death of between 73 million to 100 million sharks every year. Exact numbers are unknown for two primary reasons: first, sharks have been terribly under-studied by scientists and their worldwide populations are estimates based on fragmented (but growing) data and second, the practice of finning sharks is illegal (yet unenforced) in many places and hauls aren't accurately counted.

Because sharks are at the top of the food chain and have few predators, they reproduce and mature slowly. That means their numbers are slow to replenish when a population is overfished. At the rate humans are going, we're set to wipe out sharks entirely in as few as 10-20 years.

silky shark photo

Photo by Joi via Flickr CC

What Happens If Sharks Die Out?

Sharks are an apex predator. Apex predators are invaluable for keeping the populations of every other species in the food chain in balance. The oceans depend on sharks to keep the numbers of other fish and mammal species in check and weed out the sick, injured and dying so that populations of fish stay strong and healthy. Without sharks -- from bottom feeders all the way up to Great Whites -- the balance of the ocean's food chain is in danger.

This is not just a guessing game, either. We've already seen the impact a loss of sharks can have on an ecosystem. According to Shark Savers, a scientific study conducted in the mid-Atlantic part of the United States showed that when 11 species of sharks were nearly eliminated, 12 of the 14 species those sharks once fed on became so plentiful that they damaged the ecosystem, including wiping out the species farther down the food chain on which they preyed. The negative effects trickle out as the ecosystem gets thrown out of balance.

Activists Working to Stop Shark Finning

Everyone from celebrities like Yao Ming to politicians like John Kerry all add their voices to the fight against shark finning. But while their help gets the issue into the public eye, activists at the docks are going a world of good exposing fishing practices and markets that bolster shark finning. Randall Arauz won a Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in showing the extent of the damage done to shark populations on Costa Rica and getting policies changed that favor sharks, at least to some extent.

The real activism comes with ending the market for shark fins -- something incredibly difficult to do since shark fin soup is an embedded part of Chinese culture worldwide.

Are There Laws Against Shark Finning?

There are some laws in some areas worldwide, but ultimately, they're incredibly difficult to enforce. Thankfully, governments seem to be getting more serious about creating rules and sticking to them.

The 2000 U.S. Shark Finning Prohibition Act restricts shark finning in all federal waters and both coasts. It also calls for an international effort to ban shark finning globally. The first international ban on finning was instated in 2004 with sponsorship from the United States, the European community, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Panama, South Africa, Trinidad (Tobago) and Venezuela, and support from Brazil, Namibia and Uruguay. This international ban, however, has proven to be more posturing than action since only the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Namibia, South Africa and the European Union (EU) have actual laws in place. The U.S. tightened up its anti-finning law in December of 2010 to try and protect sharks in the Pacific.

Much of the problem surrounding laws with shark finning is enforcement. If a country sees fit to create a law, they have to then somehow come up with the resources to monitor the oceans over which they have jurisdiction, and to punish those who break the law. Some countries just simply don't have the resources.

Finning laws often revolve around requiring a boat to land the entire shark, not just cut the fins and toss the rest. And that catches brought in must contain a certain percentage of weight from fins to meat, proving that they didn't fin sharks while also landing some. Rules like this mean fishermen catch fewer sharks per outing, since they have less room in their boat. But again, enforcement is a problem.

shark photo

Photo by makelessnoise

Beyond the shores, laws can help by curbing access to the fins that are sold. For instance, Hawaii has outlawed selling shark fin soup and California is in the process of approving a ban on selling shark fins. Difficulty in getting the soup decreases demand, which decreases the selling price and makes finning less attractive of an option to fishermen. But again, the product is such an embedded part of Asian culture that decreasing demand is about as difficult as monitoring all the fishing boats on the ocean. Not impossible, but difficult.

Arauz stated, "Shark finning is not only cruel, it is irresponsible and unsustainable fishing at its highest degree. In spite of this, it has been close to impossible to attain any international binding management and conservation measures to curtail this practice."

Learn More and Take Action Against Shark Finning

January Jones is Scared for Sharks from Oceana on Vimeo.

Information, Petitions, and Activism

Discovery's Shark Week

Stop Shark Finning

Humane Society International

Shark Savers


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Shark Week: An Explanation of Shark Finning
Photo by Karendalzeil via Flickr CCShark finning is a brutal practice. A shark is caught, its fins are cut off, and the still-living shark is tossed back overboard to drown or bleed to death. The wasteful, inhumane practice is done to satisfy a demand

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