A trip to the fishing docks of Kesennuma City, Japan, is not for the squeamish. With assembly line efficiency, men clad in industrial overalls oversee a process that begins with an early morning mass dumping of dead sharks and ends with innumerable plastic buckets full of severed fins. The sharks’ remains are unceremoniously forklifted onto trucks. Kesennuma netted some 14,000 tons of sharks in 2009, for which the industrial scale operation earned more than 2.4 billion yen.
“Kasennuma is the largest shark finning operation in Asia – a major industrial operation,” Tre’ Packard of PangeaSeed, an organization committed to raising public awareness about sharks and other endangered marine species, tells The Diplomat. When Packard and a journalist went undercover to visit the site, they took photos and video that elicited a stronger response than they could have imagined. “When we put the video on YouTube, we had 20,000 hits within a few days.”
“Japan gets a bad rap,” acknowledges Packard, noting that discussion about the country’s shark finning practices often devolves into “a bunch of Japan bashing.”
A Complex Industry
The reality is far more complex. Kesennuma has become known as ground zero among shark activism circles as a place where the fin trade has reached an industrial scale. However, “finning” is not traditionally done at port, but at sea. This largely illegal activity is often done by fishermen on boats off the coasts of developing Asian countries, with Indonesia atop the list. In these cases, sharks are simply caught, their fins lopped off and the remainder thrown back into the ocean. While the practice is deplorable, many of the fishermen involved are operating at subsistence level, struggling to earn a living.
According to Packard, illegally obtained shark fins are the third most lucrative illicit good on the world market, behind only drugs and guns, and outselling ivory. Opposition to this illegal side of the market – as well as the legal, regulated side – is growing. And the reasons are many.
Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates International (SAI) tells The Diplomat, “Opposition to shark finning (slicing off the fins and discarding the body at sea), stems not only from the association with overfishing (because conceivably more sharks can be killed per trip if only the fins need to be stored), but also (perhaps primarily) from the idea of wasting about 95 percent of the animal, as well as – in the case of animal rights groups, many conservationists, and much of the public – cruelty (if the shark is finned alive).”
Sharks aren’t the only species affected by overfishing. “I think it’s important to note that overfishing…is a major problem for most marine fish, not just sharks,” Fordham explains. “Sharks are generally more vulnerable to overexploitation and usually recover much more slowly from mismanagement, so they make the ultimate case for precautionary management.”
Speaking about the fishermen who engage in the crueler form of finning – as opposed to fishing and making use of the full animal – Karl Goodsell, founder and director of Positive Change for Marine Life, tells The Diplomat, “They’ll go out in dingy little boats in places like South America and the South Pacific. But most of the fins actually end up in places like Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.”
Just what is it about tucking into bowls of bland, rubbery cartilage in broth that continues to inspire such demand? Simply put: few things suggest the whiff of money like shark fin soup in Chinese culture. This marker of class dates to imperial times. With the explosion of the middle class, demand has surged.
Signing a deal and want to impress a client? Having a wedding and want to impress guests? Throwing an elaborate birthday bash and want to show your friends you’ve made it? Just add shark fin soup to the menu. Given how entrenched this association between shark fins and affluence has become, the practice has become a habitual aspect of life in Chinese culture. A big-name banquet without shark fin soup is almost perceived as a slight to guests.
The epicenter of shark fin consumption is Hong Kong. Estimates suggest around half of the fins from the 26-73 million sharks traded annually pass through Hong Kong. Dr. Shelley Clarke, a Japan-based marine biologist, recalls that she crunched some numbers several years ago and found that “the global shark fin trade was worth $400 to $550 million U.S. per year, but that estimate is based on the retail value and the value of the raw material is obviously much less.”
And these numbers are conservative, Goodsell notes. “It’s very commonplace. Most Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong serve it in every district,” Alex Hofford, a Hong Kong-based photojournalist and shark conservationist, says in an interview with The Diplomat. “You can get a HK$50 tea set with shark fin soup in some restaurants.”
He continues, “Around this time of year there are many days with perfect drying weather—33 degrees, sunny. If you walk through Sheung Wan right now you’d be likely to see loads of fins lined up to dry.”
Sheung Wan is a district promoted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board as a dried seafood mecca, Hofford explains. “You can see all kinds of fish drying down there. It’s a very smelly place” – and complicated.
Hofford says that a 1 kilogram bag of juvenile shark fins goes for around 800 HK dollars (roughly $100). “It’s quite complicated how they price it though. It depends on all kinds of factors like freshness, market fluctuations, timing of day, stock on hand. It’s very byzantine. For these reasons it’s very hard to compile reliable data. It’s similar to real estate or stocks.”
He adds, “Fins are increasing in value because they’re becoming increasingly harder to come by…When oil prices surged, fishermen couldn’t afford gas needed to go out. This made them even more of a hot commodity. They hoarded them. It’s a very complex market.”
A Heavy Toll
All of this is being done, however, at the expense of our oceans’ health, argues a growing chorus of conservationists. And their message is increasingly getting through. From massive operations like Kesennuma or the private boats of struggling fishermen who catch, cut and release to the streets and restaurants of Hong Kong, shark finning is under increasing pressure in Asia and around the world.
The facts and figures would appear to support their concern. According to a 2009 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 32 percent of all shark species in the open ocean are threatened with extinction, primarily due to overfishing. For sharks caught in high-seas fisheries that figure jumps to 52 percent, the study found. Among the most endangered species are hammerheads, great whites, basking sharks, and oceanic whitetips, among others.
A major concern, Packard explains, is that some sharks take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity. With wait times like this, they breed too slowly to repopulate. Yet although roughly 15 to 20 percent of the earth is protected from hunting and farming, only 0.5 to 1 percent of the ocean enjoys the same status. In light of these alarming trends, a growing movement to ban finning is on the rise across Asia and around the world, and public awareness is gradually rising.
“What’s happening with sharks is an indicator of what is happening in our oceans at large,” Packard says. “Over 2.5 billion people rely on the oceans for their protein intake. The result won’t be good for humanity if the oceanic ecosystem gets totally out of balance.”
Rebecca Russo, shark campaign coordinator for Positive Change for Marine Life, adds: “Sharks have evolved over millions and millions of years. So the rest of the oceanic ecosystem has evolved around these apex species. Their place as a top level species means their extinction would dramatically impact the entire ecosystem.”
When facing the possibility that many species of shark could actually become extinct, it should be noted that shark finning is not monolithic. An Australian fisheries expert with decades in the industry explained to The Diplomat that the practice can be divided into three classifications. The first is illegal finning: catching the shark, cutting the fins off and throwing it back into the ocean to suffer a lingering death. In the second form, fishermen use the entire shark, with the fins being only a lucrative by-product. Uncontrolled fishing still goes on in this second category. In the third division of the industry, the fishing is totally controlled and the overall catch managed to ensure no over fishing and no wasted fish.
Is Sustainability Feasible?
Which raises the question: is sustainable shark fishing possible?
Many in the fishing community think it is. Those who hold this view claim the answer lies in enforcing regulations already in place.
“Saying there is no level where a shark fishery is sustainable is total nonsense; there is always a level at which a fishery is sustainable,” the Australian expert says. “I suspect for shark fisheries to survive and become properly managed, it would require a moratorium on all fishing for a period of time. Exactly how long that is would be for the scientists to say.”
He adds, “Remember though, many fisheries written off by the doomsdayers have rebounded to be better than ever after a hiatus, including the North Sea Herring Fishery. Fish are remarkably resilient creatures.”
Dr. Robert E. Hueter of the Mote Marine Laboratory echoes this view, telling The Diplomat that “given a scenario of no overfishing and only in regulated areas, sustainable shark fishing is certainly possible.”
He continues: “Of course, sustainable means strict limits on the catch by species and size, and there are many species for which sustainability is probably not economically feasible—but not all. For example, the blacktip shark of the southeastern U.S. coast is a candidate for sustainable fishing due to its current healthy state, relatively fast growth and catchability.”
Adds Clarke, the marine biologist, “Different species and fisheries ideally would be managed according to their unique characteristics and status…It should be noted that even if shark targeting is banned, a substantial take of sharks will continue in the form of incidental catch.”
Some countries are further ahead of the curve than others. In terms of countries that are tracking and monitoring their finning operations, Hueter notes, “The United States has made tremendous progress over the past 20 years to rein in commercial and recreational fisheries for sharks. Although we are not quite there yet, we are very close to rebuilding depleted shark populations and managing sustainable shark fisheries.” Hueter also praises Australia for its progress in moving towards sustainability, but added, “Neither country’s track record is perfect but both provide encouraging models.”
Fordham also lists the salmon shark off the U.S. North Pacific coast as an example of a sustainably fished shark species, and added Canada and New Zealand to the list of countries that “regulate and assess shark fisheries more than most other countries.”
According to Tony Hoyer, an Australian seafood exporter, Australia’s efforts have proven effective, to say the least. “In some fisheries like the snapper fishing area in West Australia, shark fishing has been banned for 20 years,” he tells The Diplomat. “There are so many sharks there that it’s hard to land a fish before a shark eats it off your line. Sharks need culling like lots of species. Even white pointers are in plague numbers in some places again.”
Hoyer adds, “Most near extinct shark have not been targeted for their fins. The fin trade got a bad name because of footage of a live shark being thrown overboard, which I’m against. This still happens, but not in Australia, New Zealand or any country with a sustained managed fishery.”
What about nations where regulations are loosely enforced and fishers do what they must to make ends meet? Hueter observes that “in less developed nations where shark meat is harvested for protein for people, prohibiting the fins from being sold would likely not reduce the fishing mortality of sharks much, because the meat is still needed. But why would we do that? Why throw the fins away if the shark is being caught and killed for its meat anyway?”
He continues: “An example of a nation where this would be the case would be Mexico – one of the largest shark fisheries in the world, and the sharks are fully utilized for meat, fins, and sometimes jaws, teeth, liver, cartilage, skin and other products. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the sharks aren’t overfished – which of course is the question.”
Then there is the issue of sharks swimming into fishermen’s nets, meant for other species. While many still insist this is a major source of shark deaths, Hoyer points out that this is no longer a common occurrence. “Now with new technology (excluders placed on nets) sharks escape and no sharks are caught anymore,” he said. “Tuna fishers use nylon trace rather than steel trace so sharks can cut the line with their teeth and free themselves.”
Many activists are not swayed by the evidence supporting sustainability, and instead call for an outright ban on all shark fisheries. For members of this group, one major factor that works against their cause is the lack of compassion people feel for these seemingly fierce predators of the deep – an image that is heavily reinforced by the media and entertainment. Cue Jaws.
Recent reports indicating public attitudes towards sharks include the story of a shark that was strung up near the coast of New South Wales in an “act of cruelty,” while another dead shark was spotted on the New York City subway that went viral when images circulated of it with a cigarette in its mouth and an energy drink next to it.
“If any animal needs some good PR, it would have to be sharks,” Packard says. “In truth, eating sharks is more dangerous than swimming with sharks. They are very high in mercury content—basically any kind of pollution in the ocean.”
According to National Geographic, around 50 to 75 people worldwide are attacked by sharks each year, with 5 to 15 fatalities. A list of 11 animals more likely to kill you includes bees, ants, cows, mosquitoes, hippos, dogs and even deer.
While shark fin soup is the most obvious food that includes shark, Packard explains that fish cake sold in convenience stores is often shark. “They’re basically poisoning the next generation of Japanese by selling this meat,” he says.
A number of campaigns are underway in the east and west to correct these misconceptions and focus public attention on the real danger: the possibility that these ecosystem lynchpin species are in grave danger. From the Discovery Channel’s recently passed Shark Week to information campaigns like Shark Savers, the shark conservation initiative is in full swing.
In Hong Kong and the mainland today there is ample evidence that a shift is occurring in consciousness. Although many among the older generations may be set in their ways, college students are heavily engaged in this effort. “It appears the younger generations are indeed less interested in shark fin soup than their elders,” Fordham notes. A number of local celebrities have also jumped on board – even Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming has sworn off shark fin soup. Richard Branson has joined him.
“The key is to celebrate while also empowering and informing,” Packard says. “In other words, we don’t just show a bunch of negative grizzly images, but also give people hope.”
Goodsell adds, “The younger generations in Asia are more informed and sensitive to the issue. They will start to utilize these products less and demand will decrease. This industry will decrease rapidly.”
There has some signs this may have begun. In 2010, Hawaii was the first state in the U.S. to outlaw shark fins. Several other states have followed suit. Further signs that the tides are turning include shark fin bans by MUJI Taiwan, which took instant shark fin soup off its menu; airlines, including Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand; and a number of major hotel chains in Hong Kong. Further, Fordham notes that finning is already banned outright by a growing number of countries (at least 40, plus the EU) and by most international fisheries bodies.
A Dose of Realism
For all of the progress made, perhaps a dose of realism is in order.
“We live in an economically disparate world so people in poverty take advantage of that,” Goodsell says. “In places like Palau and Indonesia there is always going to be illegal fishing.”
Though hopeful, Russo adds a caveat: “Shark finning is akin to the trade in ivory. It probably will never be completely stamped out, but in an ideal world it may be made illegal someday. But I think you’ll see some species become extinct before that point.”
But those who advocate sustainable fishing suggest that across-the-board bans do not guarantee survivability.
“Finning bans only address the issue of how the shark is killed (in the case of bans on live finning) and whether the entire shark is fully utilized,” Clarke says. “Finning bans do not directly control how many sharks are killed.”
Speaking specifically about the fin trade in the U.S., Hueter adds, “Banning the shark fin trade in the U.S. will not solve the problem and will actually penalize domestic fishermen who are playing by the rules, and reward those in other countries who are fishing unsustainably and even finning the sharks (without using the meat). Even a worldwide end to the shark fin trade would not guarantee that sharks would recover, because bycatch mortality issues will remain.”
“What is needed,” Hueter continues, “is large-scale, integrated management of shark fisheries across broad regions. We must engage governments with jurisdictions throughout the entire ranges of migratory sharks and implement rules to conserve sharks effectively. We must agree on which are prohibited species, what areas we need to make off-limits to shark fishing, and what the total allowable catches should be.”
Here Hueter highlights another catch-22 that would arise with the implementation of a total ban on fins: “Banning the fin trade at this stage will drive it underground into a black market situation, driving up the price of fins and eliminating any chance to track landings reliably.”
Fordham, who advocates an approach similar to that Hueter proposes, sums things up with a measured dose of optimism. While she admits that it’s difficult to predict where this will all lead, she says, “It seems that efforts to ban shark finning, manage shark fisheries and trade, and educate consumers, are all gaining ground and improving the outlook for sustainability, and these should continue.”
Looking for more information? The argument for sustainable fishing is made in the documentary Two Sides to a Fin, which can be seen here. For a stance much more strongly against the fin trade, see Sharkwater, a nine-part documentary that starts here.