Sharks Are What's for Dinner, and That's a Big Problem

A new study finds that consumption of shark and ray meat was up dramatically in the past decade, putting species even more at risk.
(Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Jul 31, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The world’s endangered sharks have a new threat: dinner plates.

There’s been a lot of progress in the past few years to reduce the worldwide demand for shark fins, which are often served in a Chinese delicacy called shark fin soup. That’s not the only way that sharks are consumed, however. A new 200-page report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization finds that the market for shark meat has increased an astonishing 42 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The study quantifies what many researchers had begun to suspect. “We had a sense that the shark meat trade was increasing,” said one of the report’s authors, Shelley Clarke of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Even so, the data surprised them, revealing new markets for shark meat that have emerged owing to globalization. “The magnitude of the increase and the extent to which it is concentrated in Brazil for shark meat, and Korea for skate and ray meat, were striking,” she said.

The total value of the worldwide trade in shark meat and fins was estimated at nearly $1 billion, according to the report.

Almost all of the world’s shark species face dramatic population declines because of decades of overfishing. Some species have lost 99 percent of their populations.

“These species are in global crisis,” said Luke Warwick, acting director of the global shark conservation campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts, which was not affiliated with the study. “Because sharks grow slowly, mature late, and bear few young, they can't recover from depleted populations quickly enough, especially if they continue to be killed at a rate of about 100 million, year after year.”

He said mortality rates are probably double what could be considered sustainable: “The widespread global meat and fin markets showcased in this report demonstrate the scale of the problem these top oceanic predators face.”

One unexpected cause for some of this increase is the same laws that were designed to help sharks by reducing the shark fin trade. Regulations now encourage using the entire shark instead of catching the fish, chopping off its fins, and dumping the carcass back into the ocean. The report credits anti-finning regulations along with increasing demand for shark meat—which is considered a delicacy in many countries—for what it calls a “considerable” expansion in the market.

RELATED: Fewer Sharks Are Being Caught—and That's Not Good News

That said, Clarke said the fact that fishers need to bring in the entire shark—instead of just the fins—is helpful. “There is certainly a benefit in landing whole those sharks that are killed because this contributes to better estimates of catches and better species identification,” she said. It’s often difficult if not impossible to identify a shark species solely by its fin. “This in turn helps scientists better understand the status of various populations and what further steps are necessary to conserve them.” The report found that the markets for shark fins and shark meat are largely distinct from each other.

The study doesn’t identify many specific shark species threatened by the meat trade because most nations don’t compile such statistics. They lump them into broad categories such as “shark.” FAO is advocating for a change in these trade codes, and some countries, such as Thailand, already have made changes to make the report’s data more accurate.

Clarke said she expects the report to provide a valuable new tool for understanding the shark trade and helping nations to manage sharks and shark products. Other efforts will also help. Clarke and Warwick both pointed to new rules enacted last year by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that protected five shark species and all related manta rays, as well as to the 10 new shark sanctuaries that have recently been established. “These actions will hopefully prove successful in decreasing the number of sharks internationally traded towards a level that can be sustainable,” Warwick said.