Recently, conservation organizations in the US and Costa Rica have exerted pressure on American Airlines for exporting US and internationally protected Hammerhead shark fins from Costa Rica, forcing the carrier to create a policy dropping shark fin as cargo.
Costa Rican PRETOMA and the US based Turtle Island Restoration Network, documented hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) illegally poached from Costa Rica and transported to Hong Kong after touching down on U.S. soil. The export and trade of this species violates CITES Appendix II and the US Endangered Species Act, forbidding shipments of endangered species, including ‘in transit’ hammerhead shark fins.
PRETOMA claims that it has warned both Costa Rican officials and US authorities about the illegality of such exports, yet no positive response had been given and no action has been taken to stop the exportation process by the Costa Rican government. PRETOMA warned that unless this process is stopped, scalloped hammerhead sharks could go extinct in our lifetime. In December, 2014, Costa Rica exported 906 pounds of two hammerhead shark species (Sphyrna lewini and Sphyrna zygaena). In February, 2015, it exported 1,003 pounds. Since shipments of cargo from Costa Rica to China land in the U.S. the cargo should have been confiscated in order to prevent its trade and sale under US and international law. Following the public release of evidence of the crime, American Airlines publicly agreed to stop the transport of shark fins.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks are the first, and thus far only, shark species to receive protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, one of the world’s most stringent conservation laws. The 2011 petition from WildEarth Guardians and Friends of Animals received strong public support and urging from several non profit organizations including San Francisco based Shark Stewards. The law was passed in July, 2014. The Scalloped hammerhead shark is the second largest species in the Sphyrnidae (which comprises all hammerhead species as well as winghead and bonnethead sharks); these sharks can measure over 15 feet in length.
These victories come none too soon for many species of large shark, whose numbers have been severely impacted by the shark fin trade. One study estimates sharks mortality at about 100 million sharks in 2000, and about 97 million sharks in 2010. “Sharks have persisted for at least 400 million years and are one of the oldest vertebrate groups on the planet. However, these predators are experiencing population declines significant enough to cause global concern,” states lead author Boris Worm, professor of biology at Dalhousie. These sharks used to exist in abundance in the Mediterranean Sea, but the last time they were spotted in these waters was in the 1960s.
Scientists have noted a severe decline in scalloped hammerhead and other shark numbers across the globe, to the point that they are one of the species suffering the greatest threat of extinction. The International Union of Concerned Scientists for Nature (IUCN) states that a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with ray species found to be at a higher risk than sharks.
Threats to the Scalloped hammerhead are great; they travel in schools for long distances, crossing international boundaries making the vulmerable to legal fising and poaching such as observed in Costa Rica and Ecuador. Hammerhead shark fins are among the highest prized for the delicacy shark fin soup in Asian countries, as is their meat. Even sharks released as accidental catch can suffer harm. One study shows that the stress response displayed by these sharks when they are caught is extremely strong, so that even if they are carefully released, they often do not survive the trauma. Additional threats are water pollution and habitat loss, including dwindling stocks of the shark’s typical prey.
Ocean advocate and marathon swimmer, Lewis Pugh, who recently swam the seven seas to raise awareness about the destruction of our oceans, noted that one of the most devastating things he found on his swims, was the absence of big fish: “I never saw any fish bigger than the size of my hand, in any of the seven seas. The larger ones had all been fished out. The Black sea was full of jellyfish. This is not a good thing, because they don’t belong there – they were brought in with the ballast on visiting ships and wrought havoc on an ecosystem that was already unbalanced. In the entire four weeks I did not see one shark, anywhere.”
Swimmer and ocean advocate Lewis Pugh dives into Antarctica, raising awareness for the health of the ocean.
Deteriorating water quality has numerous sources including everything from shipping to the irresponsible disposal of chemicals and medications by the pharmaceutical industry. Ocean acidification and a shift in current patterns caused by seawater temperature increases will have unknown impacts on migratory patterns and prey of large sharks. Tackling the problem of dwindling shark populations involves much more than stopping illegal exportation; it involves taking a stand and ensuring that we do not contribute to the pollution of our oceans and the destruction of countless species and ecosystems. “The world’s waters are changing. The seas and oceans are in a state of crisis. And we rely on these seas and oceans – all of us on this planet, wherever we live – for our very livelihood,” said Pugh.
Following public pressure created by the watchdog groups, an American Airlines spokesman claimed the carrier would no longer transport shark fins as cargo. Following suit, and under pressure by a social media Twitter and Facebook campaign conducted by the San Francisco based Shark Stewards, United Airlines tweeted they will not ship shark fin on their aircraft. This major policy comes on the heels of an announcement by United Airlines of a major expansion of direct routes from the US to China and Asia. “This policy has a major impact on limiting the trade of shark fins through the US to Asia, and makes the shark fin trade that much more expensive and difficult.” said David McGuire, Director of Shark Stewards. “It also sends a statement to consumers that the consumption of shark fins is seriously impacting the health of sharks and that of our oceans.”
Hundreds of shark fins seized by the police in Manta, Ecuador, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. According to the Interior Minister of Ecuador, the police siezed about 200 thousand shark fins that where about to be exported illegaly to Asia. (Fiscalia General del Ecuador via AP)
Shark Stewards is working to ensure that sharks continue to live and thrive, by placing pressure on companies and consumers to take the mantle of leadership protecting sharks, by making a public statement condemning the trade and carriage of illegal, unreported and unregulated wildlife, including shark fin. “There are no verified sources of sustainably harvested shark fins,’ said McGuire. “Even fins from legally harvested sharks – with fins attached and the meat sold for consumption- can be diluted with illegally and unsustainably harvested shark fins. The consumer eating shark fin soup has no way to know what the species of shark they are eating, whether they are endangered or where the fin came from. The best solution is to say no to shark fin soup.” With allies in Hong Kong, the two USA carrriers join 25 other airlines who will not transport shark fin. Thus far, greater pressure needs to be placed on the Top 20 shark catching countries (Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, United States of America, Malaysia, Pakistan, Brazil, Japan, France, New Zealand, Thailand, Portugal, Nigeria, Islamic Republic of Iran, Sri Lanka, Republic of Korea, Yemen). There are currently no enforceable international restrictions on shark finning; some countries have taken the lead and banned this cruel practice, yet many countries still trade in shark fins that can come from illegally or unsustainably harvested shark populations.
To address this lack of accountability, non-profit groups have urged companies to avoid serving shark fin soup. Many major hotels continue to serve this part of the shark as a delicacy, however the Shangri La hotel chain, Disneyland Hong Kong and Marriot Hotels have joined several others who will no longer serve shark fin soup. The US has been a leader in limiting the trade of shark fins by banning the sale, trade and possession of shark fins in 10 US states, with 4 others pending. Individuals can make a serious statement protecting sharks and the oceans by rejecting illegally or unsustainably harvested seafood such as shark fin and by denying business to companies that contribute to the trade. Building public pressure on businesses and our respective governments to embrace sustainability and to respect the lives of these beautiful and important animals may be the only solution for the future of sharks.
Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks Boris Worm a,n , Brendal Davis a , Lisa Kettemer a , Christine A. Ward-Paige a , Demian Chapman b , Michael R. Heithaus c , Steven T. Kessel d , Samuel H. Gruber Marine Policy Vol 40, July 2013 pp 194-204
Hayes CG, Jiao Y, Corte´ s E. Stock assessment of scalloped hammerheads in the Western North Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. North Am J Fish Manage 2009;29:1406–1417.