As apex predators, sharks are among the most important components of the food web. Although protected in State and US waters from finning, sharks are at risk as incidental bycatch and and are vulnerable to commercial longliners offshore. In Southern California, sharks are targeted by a commercial shark fishery and as bycatch in the gill net fishery. Fins from these sharks are sold to merchants legally to make the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup. Hundreds of kilos are making their way in and out of US ports each year, many fresh from Costa Rica and Ecuador: two countries who condemn shark finning.
In 2010 a researcher, Dr. Shelly Clarke, evaluated the shark fin market in Taiwan and Hong Kong and estimated from records and inventory what the global shark fin market was. The estimates her team arrived at ranged from 26- 73 million with an average of 38 million sharks killed for the fin trade. This estimate did not include sharks killed for meat or discarded as bycatch.
Globally, shark populations are being seriously impacted by industrial long-lining and the practice of shark finning, some estimates range as high as 90-99% of their original populations have been reduced. What was once accidental take as bycatch, has now turned into the global market of shark finning to supply the shark fin soup demand. Shark finning is the process of killing the shark for the fins alone.
The largest threat to shark populations world wide is from the consumption of fins for shark fin soup. The market for shark fin soup has exploded and the demand for shark fins has grown with it. Shark fins caught through illegal or unsustainable fisheries are legally traded and consumed in San Francisco and elsewhere in the United States. That is, shark fins taken from sharks captured illegally are reaching the US through legal channels. Through consumption, we are supporting an illegal practice and a practice that is damaging shark populations and the health of the oceans world wide. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) can only effectively protect trade in Whale Shark, White Shark, Basking Shark and Saw Toothed Shark Fins. Repeatedly countries in the EU, Taiwan and China have blocked CITES designations for other species like Porbeagles and Hammerhead Sharks.
Species used for their fins and other parts include blue, spiny dogfish, shortfin mako, porbeagle, hammerhead, whale, sandbar, basking, ocean whitetip, silky, bull, thresher, spurdog and angel sharks. The smalltooth sawfish, a ray related to sharks, is also killed for use in shark fin soup. All species of sawfish, except one found in Australian waters, were added to CITES Appendix I in 2007, affording them the most stringent protection from international trade. The Australian sawfish was listed on Appendix II.
In 2011 our work with the California Academy of Sciences sequenced DNA from shark fins purchased in Chinatown. The data revealed species from all over the world, many vulnerable or threatened like Great Hammerhead Sharks. There was no labeling for species, location harvested. The purveyors had no idea what kind of sharks the fins were from.
Over 100 shark species appear on the World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species yet protecting sharks from poaching and finning on the high seas is extremely difficult.
To manage fisheries sustainably there are several approaches necessary.
1. A UN Resolution must be passed banning shark finning.
2. Shark finning must be enforced on the high seas, and countries who allow the fishery must be punished through trade or other measures.
3. Identification of the source i.e. the fishery, of shark fins must be required for any legal use of shark fin.
4. Trade in unsustainably sourced shark fin or fins from an unidentifiable source must be stopped.
5. Consumers need to be educated on the health risks of consuming shark fin soup.
6. Consumers must be made aware that there are healthy alternatives that have the same texture as real shark fin.