Waiter, there’s a shark fin in my soup!

Posted on 08 June 2007

Love them or loathe them, as top predators, sharks play an important role in the marine ecosystem — their decline is symbolic of all that’s gone wrong in the oceans as a result of mismanagement and greed. Find out more about shark conservation and fisheries management.

By Dr Simon Cripps*

Hunted for food, medicine and souvenirs, sharks are in serious decline.

Love them or loathe them, as top predators, sharks play an important role in the marine ecosystem — their decline is symbolic of all that’s gone wrong in the oceans as a result of mismanagement and greed.

Millions of sharks are killed each year from overfishing and trade. Many die accidentally in fishing nets set for tuna and swordfish, while others are caught for their meat or just for their fins, which are used in traditional medicine or as an essential ingredient in shark fin soup, an expensive Asian delicacy.

Contrary to popular belief, shark fins have little nutritional value and may even be harmful to your health over the long term as fins have been found to contain high levels of mercury. Consumers may also be shocked to learn how the fin in their shark fin soup got their in the first place.

Destructive and wasteful fishing practices — like shark finning, the cutting of a shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the carcass back to sea — are pushing several shark species to the brink of extinction. Some populations, including tiger and bull sharks, are down by 90 per cent. Less threatening sounding species, like spiny dogfish and porbeagle, caught for their meat and oil (and consumed mainly in the EU), are on the verge of collapse.

As delegates meet this week in The Hague to discuss regulating the international wildlife trade, WWF hopes to see these latter species get the protection they need. Listing these two species on CITES, the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, would be a critical first step in ensuring their future protection and sustainable trade. There are, however, hundreds of other shark species that need similar attention.

Poor fisheries management is probably the main threat to sharks and to ocean life at large. Three-quarters of the world’s commercial fish stocks are already over-exploited, fished right up to their limit or recovering from collapse. Scientists have recently discovered that 90 per cent of the big predatory fish, like sharks, are lost; stripped from our oceans by industrialized fishing vessels.

Although the fishing industry is well aware of the need to safeguard fish populations and the marine environment for the future — their own future included — they continue to plunder what’s left of a dwindling resource.

Why? Because the incentive is there. Each year, taxpayers are forced to cough up US$15 billion in perverse government subsidies to keep many fishing fleets a float. Japan, the world’s largest subsidizer, gives US$2-3 billion annually to its fishing industry. The United States spends nearly US$1 billion, while the EU forks out up to €1.4 billion. Russia, which once had the largest fishing fleet in the world, pays US$600 million annually to help scrap old ships and replace them with modern trawlers.

The flush of money is artificially allowing more fishing vessels to operate than the oceans can sustainably support.

Harmful fishing subsidies, which contribute to excess fishing capacity, overfishing and illegal fishing activities, need to be eliminated. The money should be redirected to fleet capacity reduction, the development of fish stock recovery plans, fish stock assessments, and where necessary, training fishermen for alternative employment.

Governments also need to strengthen bilateral and international fishing agreements. Given that many sharks move over wide areas and are fished by vessels across international boundaries, binding international measures are essential to their conservation.

On this World Ocean Day, there is an urgent need for national and regional management authorities to re-commit to shark conservation and the protection of our oceans. Improved fisheries management and innovation that leads to “smarter” fishing will be key in the fight to save our oceans.

Sharks were living well before the time of the dinosaurs, and have proved to be good survivors. But given current fishing trends and growing demand for their meat and by-products, they will need all the help they can get just to survive to the middle of this century.

Think about that the next time you see shark fin soup on the menu. You may want to consider ordering the consommé.

* Dr Simon Cripps is Director of WWF’s Global Marine Programme, based in Gland, Switzerland.
Grey reef sharks are among the numerous marine species found throughout Fiji's Great Sea Reef.
© WWF / Cat Holloway
The growing trade in shark fins — often used to make an expensive Asian soup — has become a serious threat to many shark species.
© WWF / Jürgen Freund