To the uninitiated, the bare facts of shark-fining can be shocking: Over 50 shark species are fished worldwide to feed a huge demand for shark fin products around the world. In many cases, a shark’s fin is the only part of the animal put to use and the remaining carcass goes back in the water. The shark fins are prized for their spiny cartilage, which is rendered down into clear, spaghetti-like noodles used for, among other things, shark fin soup. Dried fins may sell for $60 per pound in the U.S. and many times that amount when they reach world markets, particularly those in Asia.
Motivated by significant profits, fishermen and fish dealers often engage in an illegal trade where governments have sought to regulate or prohibit shark fishing. Researchers estimate tens of millions of sharks are consumed by the fin trade each year, and recent studies have revealed even the great white shark, once thought of little interest to the fin trade, is among numerous species threatened by the heavy fishing pressure. This pressure is amplified by the slow recovery rates in most sharks, which take many years to reach sexual maturity and bear relatively few young.
If this recitation of facts is shocking to the inexperienced, it can be simply overwhelming to those who are familiar with the issues surrounding the shark fin trade. However, even the ability to describe the scope of the issue is a huge step forward in protecting the most vulnerable shark species. “Researchers have made significant progress in recent years in determining the effects of the fin trade,” says Dr. Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) and Save Our Seas Shark Center (SOSSC) at Nova Southeastern University. “Not only do we have a better understanding of the total number of sharks taken each year, but we’re also discovering the global nature of the fin trade and beginning to identify specific populations of sharks that are being threatened.” Shivji’s work has played a significant role in the battle to protect sharks, specifically in helping governments, industry, and consumers understand what is at stake.
Progress has come on two fronts. One has been finding a way to determine a scientifically-based figure for the total number of sharks traded globally each year – not an easy task given the vastness and secrecy of the fin trade. A second advance has come from DNA research pioneered by GHRI and SOSSC which allows for rapid identification of shark fins using very small tissue samples. This technology has helped in identifying shark fins by species and by population so researchers know what shark populations are being impacted. It has also been used to help law enforcement agencies prosecute illegal harvesting of shark fins.
Between 2004 and 2006, GHRI, in collaboration with Dr. Shelley Clarke of Imperial College, London, conducted a series of studies that took a unique approach to determining the species identity and number of sharks killed each year for the fin trade. Traditional sources of data – harvest statistics collected from fisheries – had proven to be inaccurate due to under-reporting, illegal fishing and the failure to distinguish one shark species from another. To overcome this, the new studies penetrated the shark trade itself. “Dr. Clarke was able to work directly with wholesalers in the largest fin market in the world in Hong Kong to determine how many tons of fins were auctioned off at the wholesale level in a year,” says Dr. Shivji. “However, since then, the fin traders have become much less cooperative.”
But while studying the bio-mass of fins already in the market helped avoid the issues associated with poor reporting of catch totals from fisheries, it also presented its own unique challenges. The primary one was simply identifying shark fins by species. Researchers waded through large storage rooms filled with fins, all categorized by Chinese market names and graded for their quality. Tissue samples were taken from each category for DNA tests to correlate the Chinese market names with specific species. Next, researchers combed through trade records to determine how many tons of fins in each category were sold or distributed in a given period. Sophisticated statistical methods were then employed to determine an estimated number of whole sharks represented by the weight of the fins and from that a projection of the total number of sharks traded globally.
When the math was done, the estimate was between 26 and 73 million total sharks traded each year. More significantly, this number represents a substantial increase from previous estimates. Using a novel combination of DNA forensics, trade records, and statistical analyses, Clarke and Shivji were also able to estimate the numbers of sharks traded by species. For example, their results showed that up to 15.7 million blue sharks and 3.8 million hammerhead sharks contributed to the annual trade. Throughout the process, the trade-based studies consistently produced total estimates three to five times greater than those suggested by previous records. “It’s also important to remember that our methodologies do not account for fins processed locally, as opposed to those sent through a wholesaler,” says Mahmood, noting the true number of sharks taken globally each year is likely higher still.
Another insight offered by the trade and DNA forensics studies, and also of recent law-enforcement cases, is the exploitation of particularly threatened species. Such is the case for the basking shark, a fish highly prized for its massive fins – a single large specimen can sell for more than for $50,000 – yet susceptible to population decline due to its very low reproductive rates. Although protected under Appendix II of the Convention on Trade in International Species (which requires strict permitting and monitoring of any international trade in Appendix II listed species by its 175 member nations), it has been discovered both in the Hong Kong fin market and also in the U.S. In the latter, all harvesting and trade has been illegal since 1997.
A similar story can be told for the great white. Although it enjoys legal protection in the U.S., South Africa, Australia, and several other nations, it has long been treasured by collectors for its impressive teeth and jaws. However, only the largest specimens were thought to be of value for their trophy quality until NOAA law enforcement officials made a surprising discovery in a New York warehouse. In 2006, NOAA revealed a $750,000 settlement had been reached with a New York-based seafood house. At issue were more than 200 pounds of fins, including some from great whites. The tip-off was a bag of fins labeled “blanco” (Spanish for “white”). The label was inside the bag where agents were not likely to look. NOAA sent the fin samples to GHRI where they were identified by DNA analysis as belonging to white sharks and six other prohibited species.
The New York case is only one of many GHRI has participated in with NOAA officials.
Paul Raymond, a special agent with NOAA’s law-enforcement arm says the efforts of GHRI have been a huge help to the agency. “Mahmood has worked at least 20 cases for us over the past 10 years,” says Raymond. “His work and the work of his team have been essential to our success.”
While finning sharks and dumping their bodies back into the ocean is illegal in the U.S., fishermen often fin the sharks they catch while still at sea and bring them to port in pieces in order to save storage space on their vessels. Law enforcement officials have found cases of the detached fins not matching up with the bodies, an indication that the fins are from an illegal species that was caught, finned, and the body dumped, says Raymond. GHRI has often served as a DNA forensics lab in such cases to quickly identify suspicious fin samples. A new law requiring fishermen to leave fins at least partially attached while bringing their sharks to port aims at curbing such practices.
The good news is that NOAA officials are already seeing a reduction in violations. “Our cases [of shark finning] are actually declining. We’re seeing fewer cases now than three or four years ago when many of these regulations were passed,” says Raymond. “I think this is probably due to better enforcement and stiffer fines, all of which have been made possible in part by the kind of work done by Mahmood and his team.”