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Sea to Soup

Sharks play an important ecological role as top predators maintaining marine ecosystems and a healthy ocean. Populations around the world are decreasing at an alarming rate from bycatch, finning, recreational fishing and habitat degradation, among other threats. Researchers estimate 100 million sharks, skates and rays die every year, between 26 and 73 million from shark finning alone. Learn the truth about shark finning, and the real cost of a bow of shark fin soup.

What is shark finning and shark fin soup?

Shark finning

Shark fin soup, a gelatinous mixture of the dorsal, caudal and pectoral fins of a shark, supports a multi billion-dollar industry popularizing the practice of “finning.”

Finning is the act of removing the fins and discarding the body at sea. Without the use of their fins, the incapacitated sharks drown or die of starvation.

Finning the shark while at sea allows the fishermen to transport large quantities of fins on board without having to accommodate for the larger, bulkier body of the shark.

Maximilian Hirschfeld 2010/Marine Photobank

Shark fin soup

The consumption of shark fin soup is a longstanding tradition in Chinese culture, favored by emperors and nobility as a sign of prosperity and respect. The practice is now prevalent throughout much of Asia, concentrated in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Once reserved for the upper echelons of Chinese society, shark fin soup has become standard fare not only in Asian countries, but increasingly in western countries as well. European supply and demand has grown significantly in the past few decades, expanding the market to countries like Spain and France.

Shark fin soup is distinguished by the soft collagen elasten fibers commonly known as ‘fin needles’ used to create the unique gelatinous texture. While shark fin substitutes are available to mimic the desired texture, shark fins remain in high demand and thus a lucrative business for many fishermen. Plant and animal based alternatives provide a similar taste and texture at a significantly cheaper price often served by restaurants with or without the knowledge of the customer. To authenticate the taste and reduce cost, artificial and real shark fins are commonly mixed together in a 30/70 ratio, respectively.

Julian Choquette / Flickr

Where does it happen?

There are over 400 species of sharks found around the world. Each species differs in size, shape, color and habitat. Over 400 million years of evolution have adapted shark species to a myriad of ecosystems, ranging from the shallow tropics to the deep sea.

As many pelagic, or open ocean species tend to be larger and therefore prized for their fins, many fisherman target the high seas, where there is relatively little regulation or enforcement.

Research suggests that twenty countries account for nearly 80 percent of the total reported shark catch. Of those twenty countries, Indonesia, India, Spain and Taiwan account for over 35% of the global catch. However, these nations are not restricted to fishing within their own maritime jurisdictions. Many foreign fleets will fish for sharks on the high seas (beyond national jurisdiction) or within other countries’ waters, often in protected areas where shark populations are believed to be larger.

PEW (2010) The Future of Sharks: A Review of Action and Inaction

Because sharks are migratory animals, they frequently move between state, federal and international waters, subject to conflicting regulations. Furthermore, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is a serious threat to management strategies and conservation efforts. Foreign or illegal fishing fleets often fish at night, transporting cargo across international borders. Much of the international shark catch is never even recorded.

What is it worth?

Shark fin soup. Photo by Lynac/Flickr

Economic & social cost

A single bowl of shark fin soup can cost upwards of $100. While shark fins are the most expensive fish product in the world, shark meat is relatively inexpensive, incentivizing fishermen to dispose of the meat product and selectively stock the fins aboard their vessels. Shark fin soup has become an internationally recognized symbol of high society, coveted by epicureans and social climbers alike. The industry has greatly benefited from an increasingly affluent middle class as a broadening customer base who can afford to purchase the soup, eager to demonstrate their wealth and rank.

Selling price varies by species and fin type, favoring the first dorsal and pectoral fins of the hammerhead, mako, whale, whitetip, blue, dusky, lemon and great white sharks. Fins are traditionally sold in sets comprised of two pectoral fins, the first dorsal fin and the lower lobe of the caudal fin, preferably all from the same individual. Sets are typically sold dried per kilo, though they are also available wet (i.e. unprocessed), semi prepared, or ready to eat. Because the industry is heavily reliant upon the processing and packaging phase, finning is prevalent in countries like Japan, Australia, Spain and Mexico that have developed sufficient infrastructure and post harvest technology to produce high quality, desirable fins.

Environmental cost

Sharks play an important ecological role as top marine predators stabilizing ocean ecosystems across the world. As apex predators, sharks serve a crucial role in the top down regulation of ecosystem dynamics. Many sharks are believed to be ‘keystone species’ because they have a disproportionately large impact on the different elements of their habitat given their relatively low biomass. Small shifts in shark populations disrupt the delicate balance between species across the entire ecological spectrum. Removing this critical piece from the puzzle will set off a chain reaction who’s effects are complex, unpredictable and ecologically significant.

Photo by Natalie Sasser ©2011

Declines of upwards of 90 percent of entire shark populations are not uncommon today, largely owing to this practice. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over 40 percent of highly migratory oceanic sharks are overexploited.

The fishing effort required to support the shark fin soup industry is undeniably environmentally destructive and unsustainable. Because of their biological characteristics, sharks are extremely vulnerable to overexploitation and slow to recover from overfishing. Sharks are naturally scarce, slow-growing, late-maturing, long-lived species. Due to their low reproductive rates and long gestation period, shark stocks cannot replenish their populations as quickly as they are being depleted. Nearly 100 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, teeth and liver oil. Roughly 73 percent of those caught are used for the shark fin trade alone. Failure to reduce and control rampant overfishing of shark species may result in the loss of a precious natural resource with resounding biological implications.

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization