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According to the Marine Policy journal, 100 million sharks are killed per year. To put this in perspective, that equates to approximately 11,416 sharks being killed every hour. These numbers are astounding, especially when compared to the significantly lower numbers of human deaths caused by sharks worldwide each year. In 2019, five humans were killed in unprovoked shark attacks; between 2010-2019, less than 60 of 799 unprovoked shark attacks were fatal according to the ‘International Shark Attack File.’ Most of the time, sharks are not a threat to humans; in fact, they are scared of us. So, if it’s not to protect ourselves, why are we slaughtering millions of sharks? For only one body part, their fins.
Shark finning is a brutal practice where sharks are captured and their fins are sliced off. Often still alive, the shark's body is tossed overboard to save weight and cargo space. Most species of sharks need to keep swimming to survive, so without their fins, throwing their bodies back in the water is actually throwing them to their deaths. The sharks are paralyzed and will drown, bleed out, or be eaten by other creatures. It is unnecessary cruelty towards our oceans’ apex predator. On the non-profit conservation platform, Mongabay, Elizabeth Claire Alberts writes that sharks are seen as the “stewards” of our oceans' coral reefs. They eat off the sick and weak fish, while leaving the stronger to reproduce. This helps the ecosystem to stay healthy and grow. However, sharks are disappearing from many of our vibrant coral reefs around the world, and with the numbers of shark stewards rapidly dwindling, the reefs are in serious trouble.
The fins were not only considered food, they were also believed to contain medicinal and healing properties. The Chinese thought that the fins could prevent cancer and heart disease, and lower cholesterol. Skin quality and appetite was also thought to be improved and increased by eating shark fin soup. Some people even thought that shark fins were believed to be beneficial to kidney, blood, lung, and bone health. There is no medical evidence that supports the belief that shark fin soups can help cure any of these health problems, yet, even today, some people still believe that it is a cure, and therefore, continue to contribute to the growing decline of the shark population.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nearly 100 species of sharks are on the red list of threatened species, putting them among the most threatened animal populations on the planet. The Great White Shark, Scalloped Hammerhead, Great Hammerhead, and Smooth Hammerhead sharks, are all listed under Appendix II in the United Nations Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. This convention is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. However, this convention only regulates importing and exporting, and does not protect actual living sharks. Some sharks, like the Great White, are protected under individual state laws and federal laws, but even these sharks are still victims of finning.
Through extensive DNA analysis, scientists were able to determine which shark species are the most endangered. In 2006, DNA testing was performed at shark fin distributors. They found fins of many protected species of shark from Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States. In 2010, the conservation group Shark Stewards analyzed fins from many species of sharks that are endangered. However, while DNA analysis is crucial to cracking down on finning, it cannot be done if the fin has already been dried and treated, a practice that makes it nearly impossible to identify the species of shark. The research also debunked the idea that shark fins contained medicinal benefits for humans; in reality, consuming sharks can actually be very harmful. Though the Chinese believed that eating shark fins could prevent cancer, scientists discovered toxins in the sharks that are actually carcinogenic. The DNA analysis showed that humans should not eat sharks and helped identify which species are the most at-risk, but that doesn't solve the problem of how to end this practice that is decimating the shark population.
So, what is the world doing about this global issue? Many conservation efforts are already in place, but more awareness needs to be raised and more action needs to be taken. So far, 27 countries have banned shark finning. The Animal Welfare Institute currently has a list of international shark finning bans and policies in place. In addition, they also mention airline and shipping carriers that do or do not support transporting shark fins to other countries. The European Union has made it illegal toin and discard sharks’ bodies at sea, but many countries still have not banned the practice, and are risking the species extinction. In 2018, Canada imported over 326,000 lbs of shark fins. But the following year, Canada, which was the largest importer of fins outside of Asia, became the first G20 nation to crack down on finning by banning imported and exported fins not attached to the shark. In the United States, the sale of shark fins is banned in only 13 states and 3 territories, but is still a huge contributor in shark fin smuggling. According to David Jacob, a research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, it is seen as a “transportation powerhouse.” According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, from 2010-2017, between 591 and 859 metric tons of shark fins sourced from approximately 900,000 sharks, came through US ports. Miami is one of the hotspots for this trade activity, but because it is such a high-volume airport, it is extremely difficult to catch every illegal shark fin that passes through. Elizabeth Murdock, director of the Pacific Ocean Initiative for the NRDC, said
“When we let these shark fin shipments pass through our borders without monitoring them, we’re becoming a weak link in that chain, where we instead should be one of the strongest links in that global supply chain because we have the strong legal framework and the resources to combat that trade.”
It is the United States’ job as a global powerhouse to lead by example, showing the world that sharks are crucial for our oceans’ health and vitality.
The United States has a long way to go in the fight for shark conservation, but they have made a few big accomplishments. In 2000, President Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, making it illegal to possess shark fins in US waters without a body. However, there were loopholes that made it difficult to be fully enforced, so nothing really changed. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mandated that sharks must be caught with all fins attached in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. In 2009, the Shark Conservation Act was introduced, and was approved in 2011 by President Obama. The bill strengthened the US ban on shark finning. Some key details of the bill are that it gave clear rules for enforcement officials who could not identify shark species once fins were removed, and that the bill prohibits all US flagged vessels from having custody, control, or possession of shark fins without the body, and prohibits the transfer of fins at sea. Finally, in 2019, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act was passed, which makes it illegal for any person to possess, buy, or sell any product containing shark fins. Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber released the following statement about the passing of this law:
“Sharks have survived for millions of years – since before the dinosaurs – but their future is now in question.”
So what exactly can we do to help sharks? For starters, do not consume food or use products that contain shark, and tell your friends and family to do the same! It is also important to educate ourselves on climate change and how it is affecting our oceans’ creatures, especially sharks. Be aware of the shipping and airline companies that are contributing to the fin trade and use your voice to tell them that you do not support how they are utilizing their services. If you can, donate and volunteer with a shark conservation organization, but most importantly, keep using your voice to spread awareness about what is going on.
Cover Photo: Antony Dickson
1st- Paul Hilton
Abel, Daniel C., et al. Shark Biology and Conservation: Essentials for Educators, Students, and Enthusiasts. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.