Sharks have been roaming our oceans for over 420 million years and, ever since humans laid eyes on them, they became feared hunters and the ocean’s top predator. This has caused shark populations across the world to decline rapidly.
One of the main ways humans have been hunting sharks, and the most commonly used/known practice, is called shark finning. Shark finning is the process of slicing off a shark’s fin and dumping the still alive body back into the ocean. Shark fins are a very tempting target to fishermen as they have high monetary and cultural value. In Chinese culture, shark fins are used in their food. Shark fin soup is considered a symbol of status as Chinese emperors have favoured the dish for years so it is given at prestigious events to honour guests due to its presumed medicinal benefits. Although it has been years since emperors have been the ruling entity in China, the popularity of the dish has not faded, on the contrary it has expanded with the country’s growing population. As a result, this has caused fishermen to have a greater incentive to gather and sell shark fins.
Shark finning has also become extremely popular as the fins are considered far more valuable than the whole shark. Sometimes these fins can be sold for as much as $1,100 per kilogram. Due to only requiring the fins, the rest of the body is dumped back into the ocean, resulting in the poor creature being unable to swim properly and eventually bleeding
profusely and dying from blood loss.
Animal cruelty incrimination is not the only reason for eliminating this practice, another major factor is the shark fisheries and their implications on the ocean’s ecosystem. Shark finning is having catastrophic effects on shark populations around the world. Approximately 100 million sharks are killed globally each year, and because of their slow growth and low reproductive rates, sharks are nearing extinction. Scalloped hammerheads, which are endangered, and Smooth hammerheads, which are vulnerable according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), are the most commonly hunted and killed shark each year. Between 1.3 - 2.7 million of these sharks are killed each year and the northwestern Atlantic population of scalloped hammerhead have declined from 155,500 in 1981 to 26,500 in 2005. Today shark populations have decreased by 60-70% due to human shark fisheries.
This dramatic plunge in population is not only dangerous for the sharks themselves but also the earth’s ecosystem. When shark populations decrease, a ripple effect is felt throughout the ocean. For instance, the loss of the smooth hammerhead caused the population of their prey, rays, to increase. The larger ray population now eats more scallops, clams, and other bivalves.
It has been a slow process but around the world people are waking up and realizing how critical sharks are, not only to the earth’s ecosystems, but to us humans as well. In 2013, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed five more species of sharks as not currently endangered but may become endangered without proper regulation of their trade. Individually many countries have also started to implement and make their own protections. An example is the US's 2010 instalment to their Shark Conservation Act which states that all sharks caught in U.S. waters must be brought to shore with their fins still attached.
However, the cultural values of many countries have made it difficult for some to accommodate the changes, even with growing support for the shark finning ban from governments and celebrities. Many restaurants and hotels around the world continue to sell shark fin soup.
One 2012 survey found that only six percent of luxury hotels in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shenzhen, and Fuzhou had stopped serving the dish. In one of the most recent statements, it can be found that only 12 states in America have criminalised the selling of shark fins, a measure implemented to prevent further finning, which has been illegal in the USA since 2000. In the past 2 years, 5 bills have been placed in front of the US House of Representative, all of which have been dismissed before being made into laws.
In October 1988, when Robert Hueter was starting at the Mote Marine Laboratory, he heard from a colleague that a group of fishermen off the Florida Panhandle had been caught harpooning bottlenose dolphins. Hueter says the fishermen were handed minor fines for killing the dolphins—and no penalty for finning the sharks. Ironically, since then he has stated he is against the national shark fin ban.
“The folks that are pushing the fin ban campaign want to simplify it to this very simple message—that if we ban the fin trade in the United States, we save sharks all around the world,” Heuter says. “That is so simplistic and so wrong.”
He says that cutting the fins off a legally caught, dead shark isn’t cruel, and banning a specific dish won’t stop shark finning, but, he says a ban will ensure that fins from dead sharks are wasted.
Shark finning is a tough case to crack, many exporters and fishermen have been searching for any possible loopholes to continue their practices. It has taken many years for us to get to the point we are at now but it is going to take just as long to end this cruel treatment of these fascinating creatures.
Fingers crossed we’ll be able to see more sharks roaming the waters in the future!