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