Watch These Shark Finners Get Hunted Down

Killing sharks for their fins is big business, even in countries that have banned the practice.
Sep 19, 2014·
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Every year, tens of millions of sharks die around the world so people in China and elsewhere can eat shark fin soup. The sharks are caught and hauled onto fishing vessels, where their fins are chopped off. The finless fish—usually still alive—are then dumped back into the ocean to drown and die.

As a result, shark populations around the world are plummeting. A study published earlier this year found that one-quarter of all shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Many species have seen population declines of 90 to 99 percent.

Although shark finning is still legal in most countries, much of the trade skirts the law. The problem is identifying what portions of the trade are illegal, according to Imogen Zethoven, director of global shark conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Most sharks in the world, we have no idea if they’re caught legally or not,” she said. “A large proportion is caught by large-line vessels with thousands of hooks plying the high seas. There are huge question marks over whether most of the trade is legal or not.”

Costa Rica, for instance, banned shark finning in 2012. But a recent investigation identified at least nearly three dozen fishing vessels allegedly operating illegally in the country’s Isla del Coco World Heritage site, an important shark sanctuary. None of the cases generated enough evidence for prosecution.

(A mission to hunt down and stop some of these illegal shark finners in Costa Rica appears on the latest episode of The Operatives, a new television series that airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Pivot TV, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. A preview is above.)

“Most of the shark fins that are traded are from large-bodied and highly migratory sharks,” said Zethoven.

These species take many years to reach maturity and start breeding, and when they do start reproducing, they only produce a few pups a year.

For nearly half of exploited species, the rate at which they are being fished exceeds the number of sharks being born, according to a study published last year. The study also found that fishing and finning kills an estimated 63 million to 273 million sharks each year.

The tide, though, may be starting to turn in sharks’ favor.

Just this week, international protections went into place for five of the most heavily traded and endangered species: porbeagle, oceanic whitetip, and three kinds of hammerhead sharks. Under these new rules, countries exporting fins or other products from these five species must prove that the sharks were caught sustainably and legally. “Those are very high bars,” said Zethoven, who called it “a revolution in shark management.”

“The exporting countries now have the onus to demonstrate that the fishing was legal,” she said.

Meanwhile, efforts to persuade the public not to eat shark fin soup also appear to working. Last year, China banned the consumption of shark fin soup at official state banquets. Hong Kong followed suit, an especially important step, Zethoven said, because 50 percent of the fins traded worldwide are imported to Hong Kong.

The public is also taking notice. A survey conducted by the conservation organization WildAid in August found that 85 percent of Chinese consumers said they had given up eating shark fin soup over the past three years. The report also found that shark fin prices in China have fallen by at least 50 percent.

This has yet to translate into reduced fishing for sharks, however. That’s because the laws banning shark finning still allow shark fishing as long as the entire shark carcass is kept and brought onshore. That does mean fishermen can kill fewer sharks—boats have less room to store entire shark carcasses than just if they were just carrying the fins. But once on land the shark can still be finned and then dumped, with the fins continuing to make their way to market.

Zethoven acknowledged that a lot of work remains to be done to protect sharks as their populations decline and many species risk extinction. “We’re now just starting the journey of really properly protecting sharks from the global shark fin trade,” she said.