Going Fin Free: A world issue, not a cultural one

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Shark Angels around Canada and the world are working hard on legislation to ban shark fin. However, opponents are claiming that banning the shark fin only is a sign of racism, as we are focusing on a ban of only the fins and not the rest of the shark. Many wonder why not ban all shark products? And others wonder if we are truly focusing on condemning a culture? On the contrary - Shark Angels believe shark finning is a world issue with world ramifications. And, quite simply, we are focusing our targeted efforts on the biggest threat facing sharks.

In addition to the factors challenging other marine creatures, sharks face an even more urgent threat: the demand for their fins is skyrocketing. In the last 50 years, the slaughter of sharks has risen by conservative estimates of 400%.

Each year, up to 73 million sharks are killed, primarily for their fins. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 1/3 of all shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. In just a few decades, some regional shark populations have declined by over 95%, and their populations continue to decline. Some experts predict that by 2017 up to 20 species of sharks could become functionally extinct

The reason? Over the last 30 years, the number of people eating shark fin has risen from a few million on rare occasion in the 1980’s to more than 300 million today. Sharks, slow to reproduce, cannot withstand our excessive demands for their fins – driving an unsustainable, often illegal and heavily unregulated industry. It is a simple matter of economics – demand far outweighs supply and fishermen around the world are going to all corners of the planet to catch the last remaining sharks.

Focusing on reducing demand for shark fin through consumption, trade and possession bans is the quickest and most effective way to save sharks from extinction. Our focus is devoid of emotion or bias. Instead of targeting a specific culture, we are targeting the issue itself, and shark finning is a global issue – with global consequences.

Shark fin, not other shark products, is driving sharks into extinction.
Shark fins are the primary reason sharks around the world are targeted and many species are facing extinction. With shark fin soup costing as much as HK $100 a bowl, the fins themselves cost up to hundreds of dollars per kilogram. In comparison, shark meat has a relatively low commercial value, netting only $850 USD per ton – less value than most fish. While the fins are like gold, the rest of the shark is often not worth the space on the boat to some fishermen; a large percentage of shark meat is undesirable or un-edible. Other shark by-products like cartilage, liver oil and skin drive a very small portion of demand.
With the high demand for shark fins, sharks are no longer thrown overboard with a chance for survival, thus blurring the line between targeted fisheries and bycatch. And, due to the profitability of shark finning as well as the decline in other species, many open ocean fisheries are deliberately targeting sharks – even though they may not claim to and indicate their targeted catch is very different. It is estimated that 10-20 million blue sharks per year are the victims of long lines – many of them alive when landed and finned.

Global trade in shark fins is increasing and the market for shark fin soup is estimated to be growing by 5 - 15 percent per year. Last year, consumption of shark fin soup was up 30% in Singapore, and trade of fins was up 100%. Sadly, while demand is skyrocketing, supply is plummeting causing fisherman to go to drastic measures – even finning baby sharks. Many traders report significant decreases in quality, availability, size, and quantity of shark fins – and prices are continuing to go up as supply goes down.

Shark fins are now one of the most expensive seafood products in the world, fetching up to $650 USD per kilogram. A single Whale Shark pectoral fin can sell for up to $20,000 USD and a Basking Shark pectoral fin fetching up to $ 50,000. Wherever there are sharks, there are people after their fins.

Shark finning supports a largely illegal industry – and is a worldwide issue.
Results from Dr. Shelley Clarke’s extensive study of Hong Kong shark fin markets suggest that 50 – 80% of the shark fin trade globally is largely ‘off the books’ and illegal. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a multi-billion dollar loss collectively for most countries in the world.

This extinction trade, full of greed and corruption, is rife with murder, mafia, and multi-million dollar deals. Fishermen, frantic to feed their families, will stop at nothing to bring home boatloads of fins and are being driven to extremes, though it is only a handful of individuals (wholesale traders and middlemen) who are reaping the benefits – at an incredible cost to the rest of us. The illegal trade of wildlife is second only to drugs and weapons and encourages criminal acts across country borders. Trading in shark fins is even used as a way to launder drug money.

At this point, few national or international laws exist to adequately protect sharks and little political focus to enforce those that do. Shark fishermen have found loopholes in many sharkfinning laws, and due to the economics of shark fins, the vast ocean, which is largely unregulated, is full of thousands of boats from nations around the world finning sharks. Poaching is running rampant, and even the few protected species of sharks and those in the few protected areas around the world, are heavily under threat. Even if fishermen land the entire shark in compliance with shark finning laws, the shark meat is not always marketable. The rest of the shark is often sold as fertilizer or for animal feed.

There is simply no way of knowing if a fin has been legally obtained. In fact, recent studies performed in Hong Kong indicated over 70% of the hammerhead fins found at traders and retail outlets were obtained illegally from protected marine reserves.

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Most countries participate in the shark fin business.
Our campaign focuses on eliminating the trade, sale and possession of shark fin – which impacts dozens of countries around the world – eastern and western. Shark finning isn’t just something that can be blamed on a single culture or country, and it is wrong to point fingers.

Many countries are engaged in either trading or supplying shark fin. More than 100 countries are involved in the business of trading in shark fins. The major suppliers of shark fin include Spain, France, the UK, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, India, Japan, Mexico, Yemen, and United Arab Emirates.

We can’t rely upon the global community to protect sharks.
There are currently no binding international treaties or legislation that prohibit or even regulate shark finning, let alone address the management of shark populations globally. Collectively, the world is slow to realize and react to the danger confronting sharks.

CITES is a valuable organization, but its process hardly results in a comprehensive listing of endangered species or an efficient means of broad protection. Another organization, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which started CITES, is widely recognized as the organization that provides a more accurate view. IUCN relies on the scientific assessment of species and is not encumbered by international politics. On the IUCN's Red List of endangered species, 50 shark species are listed as being at high risk of extinction (either Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable) and 63 additional shark species are approaching threatened status. Another 199 species of sharks are considered 'data deficient', many of which may well be endangered, but there is insufficient data to determine their status. There is also regional information available to indicate that sharks are functionally extinct in large parts of the ocean due to overfishing.

Sadly, although only three out of over 500 species of shark that are protected from international trade, this is not an indication of which species deserve to be protected, but rather a reflection of the inadequate methods we currently have of providing worldwide protection to endangered species.

And CITES protection doesn’t ensure animals are protected. Whale, basking, and white shark fins and other products are still being sold on the market even as you read this. Of course, with an Appendix II listing, trade of these products is allowed – but regulated; exporting countries must supply traders with the proper permits. Even if sharks were on Appendix I – it is still up to each individual country to enforce CITES, which is problematic. Like any other extinction trade species, a significant black market exists for shark products, and it is very difficult to determine the origin of species once the fin is removed from the shark. Only until there is no demand will the supply stop

The movement is growing to ban shark fin around the world – regardless of heritage.
Often it is argued that consumption of shark fin soup is a long-standing Asian tradition. In reality, it is only in the past 50 years that shark fin soup has been accessible to anyone but the most elite in Asia. For the vast majority, this is new “tradition” driven by trade marketing like any other consumer branding campaigns. Many consumers we have interviewed in Hong Kong and China have indicated it is not part of an important cultural tradition to them. And they also indicated that traditions need to change as they become outdated, citing binding women’s feet as an example.

Consumers are largely unaware of the origins of shark fin. Studies in Hong Kong and Taiwan show that consumers have little understanding of where shark fin soup comes from, of overfishing, of illegal shark fishing or of the practice of finning. And when educated, consumers overwhelming indicate they do not want to contribute to the demise of sharks for their fins. Recent studies by WIldAid in Canada indicate over 80% of Chinese Canadians support a ban of shark fin.

There is a growing movement that is gaining support in Hong Kong and China for schools, corporations, restaurants and brides/grooms to stop serving shark fin soup at their banquets and celebrations. Even the Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong University and the Bank of China do not allow shark fin at their functions any longer. It is becoming socially unacceptable to serve shark fin – especially with time running out for sharks.

Many individuals in Singapore, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Malaysia have taken a stand against shark fin soup. Even famous individuals like Yao Ming will not consume it.

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This is a global issue with global implications.
Sharks have roamed – and shaped - the seas for more than 400 million years. As the first vertebrate with jaws, sharks pre-date the dinosaurs by 150 million years and are important to the health of the oceans. Recent studies indicate that regional elimination of sharks can cause disastrous effects further down the food chain including the collapse of valuable fisheries and the death of coral reefs. As shark populations plummet, we risk disrupting the largest and most important ecosystem. The oceans represent 71% of the earth’s surface, provide hundreds of millions of people with food and incomes, produce half of the atmosphere’s oxygen, and are one of our best natural defenses to global warming, removing more carbon dioxide from than all the rain forests combined. Without sharks, this all is at risk.

The entire planet relies upon the oceans – and those oceans, as well as the sharks within them, are a global treasure. All future generations, regardless of heritage, rely upon healthy shark populations.

Studies also indicate that sharks are far more valuable alive than dead to many countries in terms of tourism. The shark trade could end tomorrow with no collective net negative effects on the world’s economies but with significant positive effects on the health of the oceans all the people around the world who depend on them.

The solution? Legislation to ban the shark fin trade and a collaborative global response to this issue is desperately needed. Banning ivory nationally - and its trade internationally - protected elephants when at their most fragile. To stop finning without patrolling the vast oceans with a fleet of hundreds of thousands and billions of dollars, shark fin needs to be banned immediately.

This isn't a cultural issue - it is a world issue. By banning the trade, possession and consumption of shark fin, this is our best global hope at giving sharks a much-needed chance to recover, while protecting our oceans, and all who depend upon them.

-- Julie Andersen, Founder, Shark Angel

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