A new study reports that 76 to 80 million sharks were killed between 2012 and 2019, with about 25 million of them threatened species. The study published by Worm et al in the journal Science shows that overfishing continues to present a dire threat to shark populations over much of the world, despite the widespread adoption of anti-shark finning legislation and related regulations over the same period.
Shark finning is the practice where a fishermen cuts the fins away from a shark and discards the rest of the shark away rather than have the less valuable carcass take up space on the boat. Often, the sharks are still alive when thrown overboard, where they bleed to death or suffocate at the ocean floor.
The team examined shark catches between 2012 and 2019, the same period when many shark finning regulations were implemented to examine whether conservation measures reduced species losses. Shark catch rose globally by nearly 4% over those years, from an estimated 76 million in 2012 to more than 80 million in 2019. The team also conducted interviews with shark fishery experts to better contextualize current trends in shark finning and fishing practices. Overall, the dataset examined an estimated 1.1 billion sharks caught by fisheries around the world.
Based on their findings, the authors suggest shark finning regulations may not be effective in decreasing shark mortality, and may have created new markets for shark meat. Data from interviews suggest that anti- finning regulations even contribute to incentivizing retention of whole sharks and, by extension, markets for their meat. However, the focus is on the practice of shark finning and not on the shark fin market and trade itself, the major driver in many shark fisheries.
“We show that widespread legislation designed to prevent shark finning was successful in addressing this wasteful practice but did not reduce mortality overall,” said the lead author Boris Worm, a researcher at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “Too many sharks are still dying; this is especially worrisome for threatened species such as hammerheads.”
The authors conclude that domestic measures adopted to eliminate the fin trade were insufficient to halt overexploitation. Their analysis suggests that current risks for coastal sharks appear to be escalating on average, a conclusion supported by assessments by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The analysis also suggests that shark mortality is increasingly concentrated in coastal hotspots. Sharks caught in territorial waters of just six coastal nations added up to 50% of global shark mortality. Four of these countries (Indonesia, Brazil, Mauritania, and Mexico) were also highlighted by interviewees as places where high shark fishing mortality coincides with insufficient regulatory capacity. It is noteworthy that these countries are also major international suppliers or domestic consumers of shark meat, reflecting growing markets for non-fin shark products such as liver, skin and meat.
Shark populations are crashing worldwide, especially in the open ocean. A 2021 study published in the Journal Nature examined global populations of 18 species of pelagic sharks including oceanic whitetip sharks, and report their numbers had plummeted by 71 percent since 1970. Over the same period, fishing pressure on sharks and rays increased 18 times in the 50 years between 1970 and 2020. In the same study, the authors reported that 77% of all sharks and rays listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered have been fished from the oceans since 1950.
Once killed primarily as unintended bycatch, the gold rush for shark fin has driven overfishing of sharks. Increasing regulation on finning sharks combined with declining large fin-fish stocks is driving a new industry for meat as well as the fins. In an examination of the global shark and ray meat trade, WWF reported that more than 200 countries and territories were importing and exporting US $2.6 billion between 2012 and 2019, with Spain being the world’s top exporter.
The total value of shark and ray trade in the period 2012-2019 exceeded $4.1 billion USD. The value of shark and ray meat combined ($2.6 billion) exceeds the value of shark fins ($1.5 billion) in the same period. Prices for shark meat can range from US $0.1/kg to more than US$100/kg for the fins. Over half the shark fins exported globally go through Hong Kong market with the highest wholesale price of fins bringing US$30/kg.
Overfishing is the Problem, Fins are the Catalyst
Overfishing is the problem, including Ilegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, estimated at 20% of all global catch. A decline of over 70% of other large fish stocks such as bluefin and yellowfin tuna has led to a shift in shark fishing for meat. Moreover, as a new study on fish and chips in Australia discovered, shark meat is mislabeled as flake or other misleading labels. In this study 89% of samples collected were mislabeled and some included endangered mako and scallop hammerhead shark meat. As the Worm et al note, countries like Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico have increased shark meat consumption and product exports- including fins. The high price of fins from sharks landed whole is a huge incentive for fishermen to retain sharks that would otherwise be released in fisheries targeting billfish or tuna. A 2022 analysis of DNA from Shark fins in the Hong Kong market discovered that more than 70 percent of species were endangered or CITES protected species, and sharks living closer to coastlines like angel sharks and bonnethead sharks might be of greatest conservation concern.
Despite overfishing and the ripple effect created by anti finning regulations, the global shark fin trade is driving profits and overfishing sharks. Trade data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization indicates that 15,000 tons of shark fins were traded in 2002, and began a gradual decline where exports bottomed at around 5,000 tons in 2013. However, since 2013, there appears to be a gradual increase in exported fins with the most recent estimates at around 11,000 tons exported annually worldwide. The value of shark fins is approximately 20-250 times the value of shark meat.
An earlier assessment of shark catch in 2013 by Worm et al. estimated that about 100 million sharks were killed in 2000, with about 97 million sharks in 2010, and a total range of possible values between 63 and 273 million sharks per year. The authors noted then that most of the sharks were killed for their fins. The study estimated that 80%, or 908,000 tons of discarded sharks, were finned, while the remainder (227,000 tons) were released alive in that study.
Drawing the conclusion that shark finning regulations have not been effective is not entirely accurate. The barbaric act of shark finning has declined, thanks largely to shark finning regulations and pressure on reducing the shark fin trade through trade ban and CITES listings. As Worm et al. point out in their 2024 study, management of shark fisheries is necessary to prevent overfishing. The study also shows that successful management of shark fisheries can lead to a decrease in mortality; such is the case with retention bans and other measures taken by regional fisheries management organizations. On a positive note, the authors observe that shark catch in pelagic fisheries have declined by 7%, especially across the Atlantic and Western Pacific.
We have not yet won the fight to protect sharks but should not discount the advances in recordkeeping and the prevention in cruelty brought by shark finning regulations. Sharks are being overfished in most cases in the absence of proper management. Protecting sharks from overfishing and bycatch, especially critically endangered sharks like oceanic whitetip and hammerhead sharks, through zero retention policies and gear changes are urgently needed to prevent extinction. Stricter regulations and enforcement of the fin trade for endangered sharks and CITES species is critical. Concurrently we cannot ignore the incentives the shark fin trade provides. Educating consumers of shark fin, regulating and enforcing the trade of fins, especially endangered sharks, should still be a conservation priority.
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