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.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.”