Although there has been a significant decrease in demand within the controversial shark fin trade, if sharks are going to survive long-term the market for their fins needs to disappear entirely.
A worrying 100 million of these beautiful beasts are killed each year, with the vast majority of sharks killed as a result of the widespread international fin trade. As many as 73 million sharks fall victim to the high demands of Asia – their fins are used to make shark-fin soup which used to be considered indicative of status and power.
Thankfully for the past 3 years the popularity of this soup has declined rather dramatically, but conservationists fear it may be a case of ‘too little too late’. At this point, it is not possible to know for sure whether shark populations will be able to recover from the high demand in recent years. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), over one quarter of all shark species can be found on the Red List, meaning that they have been given threatened status.
The fining of sharks has been a major contributor to the dramatic decrease in shark populations all over the world and together with a number of factors such as overfishing, increasing water temperatures, marine pollution and ocean acidification, many of the shark populations have worryingly decreased by up to 98%. Of course these latter issues impact more than just sharks – all of our valuable marine life is affected and these environmental factors can no longer simply be ignored.
Asian Airlines are Banning Shark Fins
Focusing on the positive, however, it is interesting to note that it was actually an airline that started the ball rolling towards a decline in shark-fin soup popularity. Cathay Pacific is the flagship airline for Hong Kong and announced in 2012 that they would not continue to carry shark fins that had been sourced unsustainably or those fins that come from unverified sources. This decision did not come out of the blue, however, it was the hard work of 40 conservation societies who presented facts that the Hong-Kong based airline could not ignore.
Before the change, Hong Kong was responsible for handling around 50% of the global trade in shark fins, and in 2011 Cathay Pacific assisted with the import of 650 tonnes of the overall 11200 tonnes imported into Hong Kong. Amongst the coalition of conservation groups were the Humane Society International and Greenpeace Hong Kong. Thankfully after Cathay Pacific took these steps to dramatically limit their involvement with the shark fin trade, other airlines have followed suit.
Some airlines have even gone so far as to ban the transportation of shark fins altogether. In South Korea, two airlines were primarily responsible for importing around 84 tonnes of shark fins in 2012 – Asiana Airlines and Korean Air. They have since banned the transportation of shark fins as cargo, a huge step in the right direction. More recently Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Philippine Airlines have done the same. Alex Hofford from Wild Life Risk says that these decisions “will go a long way in helping the shark populations in Southeast Asia recover from the relentless onslaught that they have been suffering at the hands of the shark fin trade for decades.” At the time of writing, a total of 23 large international airlines had banned the carrying of shark fins entirely, with another 2 agreeing to only carry fins from verifiably sustainable sources.
Not on The Chinese Government Menu
As we all know, an industry is only as successful as the levels of supply and demand, and thankfully thanks to many of these airlines restricting the already-established supply routes, one half of the battle is on its way to being won. Believe it or not, the Chinese government has actually played a large role in reducing the demand for shark fins with their recent decision to remove the controversial dish from the menus of all government banquets and receptions.
Although the reason for this change had nothing in particular to do with the environment (the government was trying to reduce political extravagance), the knock-on effects have been positive for shark populations all over the world. The fact that powerful government leaders are no longer consuming this ‘delicacy’ which was once indicative of status has done wonders to reduce peoples’ fascination with shark fin soup. The government went on to reinterpret a particular law in 2014, making it illegal to consume some of the world’s rarest and most endangered animals. Some of these 450 now protected animals include endangered shark species.
WildAid has been instrumental in raising awareness about our rapidly declining shark numbers, and these campaigns seem to be taking effect. In 2011 an entire series of special public service announcements was aired internationally with a specific focus on people in China. To get the point across, WildAid used a famous basketball player known as Yao Ming to encourage the Chinese nation to forget about shark fin soup and realize its harmful effects both on the human body and of course to the shark population.
To measure the effectiveness of this campaign, WildAid conducted a survey compiling trade statistics, surveys from shark fin traders and public opinion surveys. Their research showed that 85% of Chinese consumers had given up eating shark fin soup within the previous 3 years and claimed that awareness campaigns were their primary reason for doing so. Shark fin vendors in the centre of China’s trading area, Guangzhou, have seen an 82% drop in sales between the year 2012 and 2014. Retail prices have reduced by a massive 47% showing that there is less demand for the product – a positive thing for shark enthusiasts the world over. Once worth a whopping $642 per kilo, shark fin vendors would be lucky to receive half that amount when reselling these body parts. As part of the report, the vendors were asked to comment, to which one vendor said “shark fin is a dying business.”
Shark Fin Trade Decline
WildAid’s findings were verified in 2014 thanks to an independent study that was published in the Biological Conservation Journal at the start of 2015. Scientists Hampus Eriksson and Shelley Clarke were responsible for the study and found that the shark fin trade has seen a significant decline over the past 10 years, with a decline of 25% internationally. There are most likely 3 main reasons for this decline according to Clarke. Not only have governments finally taken a stand and the awareness campaigns been highly effective, but shark fin is now considered “unhealthy” due to high levels of mercury. As consumers are aware of the worldwide restrictions on shark fin supply chains, they have probably begun to doubt whether the products they are buying are actually the real deal, meaning that they are less likely to buy an inauthentic shark fin to make soup with.
Many countries have finally refused to turn a blind eye to what the shark finning industry is doing to the world’s shark population, and 28 countries as well as the European Union have partially or completely banned the act of shark finning. At least 3 shipping companies are now refusing to ship shark fins whilst many international hotels such as Hilton and Marriot Hotel Group have promised to keep their kitchens fin-free. Sharks are also unfortunate victims of overfishing, and some 22 countries have banned shark fishing either in part or entirely. Many times sharks will be caught as a bycatch but will be too damaged to return to normal life, contributing to these overfishing statistics.
We can only hope that these statistics continue to improve, providing the world with positive news about its endangered shark populations. After all, sharks belong in our oceans, not on our menus.