The Internet erupted with praise in August when United Parcel Service tweeted that it would stop shipping shark fins. But the decision — after a petition to the delivery giant garnered 178,000 signatures — addressed just one of many concerns about the ecologically vital but often threatened marine species.
“There is a persistent belief among many well-intentioned folks that the only threat that sharks have ever faced, or are currently facing, is shark finning,” said David Shiffman, a well-known shark scientist at the University of Miami. He argues that the focus on fins distracts attention from more important conservation actions.
Sonja Fordham, president of the nonprofit Shark Advocates International, agreed with Shiffman. “When I started, most people were scared of sharks and didn’t care much whether they survived or not,” so the show of support for their conservation is encouraging, she said. But she, too, worries that finning is eclipsing other issues.
Those other issues were highlighted last month when the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization released a report showing that the overall global trade in shark fins has been declining, probably in part because of activism such as the UPS petition. But sharks comprise more than fins, and the trade in shark meat has skyrocketed, increasing 42 percent since 2000. More than 117,000 tons of meat was exported globally in 2011, along with 17,500 tons of shark fins.
Shark fisheries scientist Shelley Clarke, one of two co-authors of the report, said the statistics explain a lot. “When we started implementing these finning bans, we didn’t really see the catch rates going down,” she said. The increased market for shark meat has ensured that shark-fishing businesses remain economically viable despite decreased interest in specific body parts. Thus, bans that are focused on fins aren’t doing much to reduce the number of sharks killed.
It’s not clear why the public discourse on sharks has become so singularly focused. Clarke believes the visceral response that many people have to shark finning is partly responsible, with concern “propelled by bloody pictures of fins being cut off.” But many fins are obtained legally and humanely, a fact often overlooked.
Fins are also an easy target for activists in countries with no taste for the Chinese delicacy, Clarke said, noting, “It’s relatively easy to ban a product that you never use.”
But eager conservationists would be wise to examine their own countries’ glass houses before casting stones at others’ practices.
In reality, shark conservation is messy and complicated. Take the United States: Its fisheries are better managed than most, and the practice of shark finning — removing an animal’s fins at sea and discarding the rest, alive or dead — has been federally banned since 2000. But ending the wasteful and cruel practice doesn’t mean fins aren’t being sold. According to the FAO report, the United States exported nearly 84,000 pounds of shark fins in 2011, a year after Congress mandated that sharks be brought to shore with their fins “naturally attached.”
Furthermore, such initiatives don’t extend to sharks’ cousins, which make up 75 percent of the U.S. catch of sharks and their relatives in the cartilage-skeletoned class Chondrichthyes. Lopping the wings off live rays and skates, arguably as cruel as finning, is both “legal and commonplace,” Fordham said, adding, “Skates and rays are being fished as heavily, and are more threatened and much less protected.”
The United States ranked fifth globally in chondrichthyan catch in 2011, pulling in more sharks and rays than South Korea, Japan and Thailand combined. It ranks even higher in exports of shark products; until 2012, rays and skates did not have a specific code for import or export here, so they were labeled with catch-all terms for unspecified fish. Classifying these fish correctly makes the United States the third-largest chondrichthyan exporter by volume and the second-largest by value.
Perhaps even more surprising than the volume of catch is where caught meat is headed: The top three importers of U.S. shark meat were France, Germany and Canada, while U.S. rays and skates went mainly to South Korea, France and the United Kingdom.
The picture is equally mixed in other developed nations. The European Union, for example, has taken great strides toward the conservation of sharks in the past couple of decades, implementing strict fins-attached rules and shuttering some unsustainable fisheries. But the bloc’s biggest current catches — blue sharks, mako sharks, smooth hounds and cat sharks — are unregulated and have not been assessed for sustainability.
The point is, conserving sharks requires broadening the conversation beyond China and shark fin soup. Some countries fish for sharks, some eat them or parts of them, and some just move shipments along.
“We don’t need to highlight or point the finger of blame at certain countries,” Clarke said. “We need broad-scale systems and international management” — which is why the top recommendation in the FAO report was for standardized commodity codes by product to make clear what is being imported and exported around the world.
Because of a lack of global standards, a box labeled “shark meat” might contain dried, frozen or fresh fins or fillets from any species of shark. Sometimes, shark products aren’t even labeled as such, marked instead under categories for unidentified fish.
Improving data collection and making labels species-specific are moves that scientists and fishermen alike agree on. “We need better science,” said Rusty Hudson, a fisheries consultant and industry advocate since 1991. Fishermen strongly support good stock management because, as Hudson notes, they “don’t want to fish out their honey holes.” Detailed data would also allow for more efficient tracking of trade.
As mundane as it sounds, better record-keeping would have a greater impact on shark conservation than any ban on the collection or trade of shark fins.
But, Shiffman notes, “I’ve yet to see an Internet petition that gets 50,000 signatures saying, ‘Standardize global customs codes.’ ”
Wilcox is an evolutionary biologist and science writer based in Honolulu.