Fin Trade Kills 73 Million Sharks Annually

MIAMI, Florida, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - The world's rising demand for shark fins is killing as many as 73 million sharks a year, according to a new study. The figure is three times higher than the official catch number reported to the United Nations and raises concern that the trade is having a devastating impact on shark species worldwide.

The findings are the first estimates based on real data of the number of sharks harvested for fins.

"The shark fin trade is notoriously secretive," said lead author Shelley Clarke, an American fisheries scientist based in Hong Kong and Japan. "But we were able tap into fin auction records and convert from fin sizes and weights to whole shark equivalents to get a good handle on the actual numbers."

The research team calculated the number of sharks represented in the fin trade using a unique statistical model and data from Hong Kong traders.

After converting the figures to shark weight, they concluded the total is three to four times higher than shark catch figures reported to the UNFood and Agricultural Organization.

The study was published in this month's edition of "Ecology Letters."


Sharks have been swimming the Earth's seas for more than 200 million years, but now face an uncertain future. (Photo courtesy Shark Alliance)

The findings come amid growing concern about the recent growth of the shark finning trade. Sharks are vulnerable animals and their slow growth, late maturity and small number of offspring make them especially susceptible to overexploitation, and the species is slow to recover once depleted.

Furthermore, because most sharks are top ocean predators, over-fishing of sharks is likely to cause disruption to prey populations and an overall imbalance in marine ecosystems.

Shark fishing continues virtually unchecked in most of the world's oceans and territorial seas, even though many species are threatened with extinction. Three shark species are listed as imperiled on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and 20 percent are threatened with extinction according to the 2006 Red List of Threatened Species.

Sharks are targeted directly for their fins, meat and liver oil, but the value of shark fins is often many times greater that of shark meat.

To meet the demand for fins, fisherman frequently catch sharks, slice off the fins and discard the body at sea.

The fins are primarily exported to China for use in shark fin soup, which can command prices in excess of $100 a bowl. Demand for the delicacy has increased as the Chinese middle class has grown, even as reported global landings of sharks have remained static or declined.

Determining whether shark populations can continue to withstand the estimates magnitude of catches depends upon the size and status of each population, the scientists said.

"One of the most productive sharks is the blue shark, and it appears that the catch rate is near the maximum sustainable level," says Clarke. "But such assessments were not available for other, less productive shark species. It is quite likely that sustainable catch levels have already been exceeded in some cases."

The study does come amid a bit of good news for sharks. Last week the European Parliament voted to tighten the EU's shark finning regulations, which allow fishermen to land fins and carcasses separately.


Shark fins on sale in Hong Kong. (Photo by Rob Parry-Jones courtesy TRAFFIC)

The rules, intended to prevent shark carcasses being dumped at sea, mandate that the weight of fins as a proportion of the total catch not exceed 5 percent.

The EU Fisheries Committee had called for the ratio to be increased to 6.5 percent, but the parliament rejected that recommendation in favor of decreasing the ratio to 2 percent.

"With this vote, the European Parliament has acknowledged science, the precautionary principle and the alarming decline of crucial shark populations," said Julie Cator of Oceana Europe. "It is now up to the European Commission to follow the Parliament and strengthen the finning rules as part of an overall strategy for healthy shark populations and sustainable shark fisheries."