Destructive Dining: The biological, cultural and political implications of the shark fin soup industry
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, subsequently leaving the incapacitated shark to drown or die of starvation. While shark fins are the most expensive fish product in the world (Vannuccini, 1999), shark meat is relatively inexpensive, incentivizing fishermen to dispose of the meat product and selectively stock the fins aboard their vessels.
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 (Vannuccini, 1999). 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 (Kreuzer, Ahmed, Lai Ka-Keong, 1983). Sets are typically sold dried per kilo, though they are also available wet (i.e. unprocessed), semi prepared, or ready to eat (Vannuccini, 1999). 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 (Vannuccini, 1999).
Figure 1: Shark fin gradation chart
SUBASINGHE S., “Shark fin, sea cucumber and jelly fish. A processor’s guide”, INFOFISH Technical Handbook 6
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 (Camhi, 1998). 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 (Fowler, 2005). European supply and demand has grown significantly in the past few decades, expanding the market to countries like Spain and France (IUCN, 2003). 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 (Forero, 2006).
Shark fin soup is distinguished by the soft collagen elasten fibers commonly known as ‘fin needles’ used to create the unique gelatinous texture (Vannuccini, 1999). 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. A single bowl of pure shark fin soup can fetch upwards of $100 USD per bowl (Oceana, 2010). 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 (Vannuccini, 1999). To authenticate the taste and reduce cost, artificial and real shark fins are commonly mixed together in a 30/70 ratio, respectively (Vannuccini, 1999).
The global appetite for shark fin soup is the most serious threat to shark populations around the world (Clarke et al, 2006), driving shark populations to the brink of extinction. An estimated 73 million sharks are slaughtered every year for their fins (Oceana, 2010). Fuelled by the growing demand and enabled by the lack of adequate enforcement, the shark fin soup industry is depleting shark stocks at an unprecedented, unsustainable rate. Declines of upwards of 90 percent of entire shark populations are not uncommon today, largely owing to this practice (Cailliet et al, 2005). The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over 40 percent of highly migratory oceanic sharks are overexploited (1999). The solution to these drastic population declines must address the biological implications of the loss of shark populations by strengthening the regulatory political framework and increasing awareness among consumers. The global shark-finning crisis can only be resolved by integrating biological, political and cultural concerns and strategies in support of broader shark conservation efforts.
Cultural consumption is arguably the single most influential incentive for the shark fin industry. Sharks have been targeted throughout history for human use, sought after for their meat, hides, liver oil, fins, skeleton, jaws and sport (Kuang, 1999). China was the first country to adopt the practice of shark finning for the consumption of shark fin soup, continuing the tradition to this day as the largest national consumer (Vannuccini, 1999). The use of shark fins in China dates back for centuries to the Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1279) (Clarke, 2004). By the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), shark fin soup had become a traditional staple at most formal occasions (Clarke, 2004). Shark fin soup was prized by the elite as a reflection of wealth and affluence as an extremely rare and difficult dish to prepare, featured at weddings, banquets and other important functions. Shark fins are still considered one of the eight treasured foods from the sea in traditional Chinese culture, valued for its health and exotic qualities (Kreuzer, Ahmed & Lai Ka-Keong, 1983). The dish soon became synonymous with privilege and rank, offered as a sign of respect to honor important guests and dignitaries. To this day, the host is believed to ‘lose face’ and suffer disgrace by dishonoring their guests if they neglect to serve the dish (Forero, 2006). The concept of ‘face’ is prevalent throughout every aspect of Chinese life, emblematic of the cultural importance of honor, respect, and dignity (Dong & Lee). Chinese food culture mirrors these same values, used to develop and foster harmonious relations between individuals through traditions emphasizing respect (Chang, 1977). Shark fin soup is one such culinary tradition, customarily served by businessmen, government officials and individuals at nearly every important function in accordance with Chinese etiquette and customary practice (Vannuccini, 1999). In accordance with the traditional Chinese holiday season, the highest consumption period lies between October and February as the customary season for weddings and other parties, peaking around Chinese New Year (Oceana, 2010).
While growing in popularity around the world, China remains the top consumer of shark fin soup (Wildaid, 2007). 50 to 80 percent of the shark fin soup industry is centered in Hong Kong, the so-called gateway to china (Fowler & Musick, 2006). Hong Kong receives and processes shark fins from around the world, supplying fins to domestic and international markets. More than 50 percent of the world’s sharks’ fins are traded through Hong Kong, with up to 27 percent of supplied from the European Union (Hong Kong Shark Foundation). The shark finning industry historically catered to the Canton region in south China until the late 1980s (Pellissier, 2003) when demand for shark fins spread across Asia (Shivji et al., 2002). The economic growth and development that followed the liberalization of the People’s Republic of China catalyzed the expansion of the shark finning industry (Spiegel). The resultant burgeoning middle class in China largely supports the shark fin soup industry, enabled by a disposable income to afford the expensive delicacy and a newly capitalistic economy.
The shark fin industry is further propagated by traditional Chinese medicine, prized for their perceived range of healing and nutritional properties (Chen, 2001). Shark fins are believed to be an anti-inflammatory, appetite enhancer, as well as beneficiary to the kidneys, lungs, bones and many other parts of the body (Fowler, 2005). Some medicinal practices even use shark fins as alternative cancer treatment, believed to possess restorative and regenerative properties (Chen 2001). The various methods of preparation are meant to convey different healing properties, differentiating between dried, fresh, and frozen products and their predicted health effects (Coggins, 2009). Sharks also provide valuable insight into human health and function (Adelman, Schuter & Marchalonis, 2004). However, beyond their biomedical potential, modern science provides little evidence to support the nutritional or healing potential of shark fins (Pellissier, 2005). Furthermore, sharks contain dangerously high levels of toxic contaminants like mercury that can cause serious health effects (EPA 2004). Studies show that prolonged exposure to mercury via consumption increases the risk of learning disorders, behavioral problems, and memory loss (USGS 2000), thus negating any potential health benefits derived.
Today, shark fin soup is a deeply engrained culturally significant tradition prevalent throughout much of mainland China and Hong Kong. Eradicating the centuries old tradition would require prolonged, targeted awareness efforts to help consumers understand the importance of sharks, emphasizing the shark fin industry as one of the most significant threats to shark populations. Studies in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan show that consumers know very little about where or how shark fins are obtained, the risks of overfishing, and the prevalence of illegal shark fishing (Wildaid, 2007). Many participants reported that they incorrectly believed that shark fins can grow back, are flavorsome and nutritious, and have medicinal properties (Wildaid, 2007). As a consumer driven market, there is a great opportunity for consumer education to play a role in shaping future market growth and resource conservation (Clarke, 2004).
Campaigning against a traditional practice requires great attention to cultural sensitivities. To help raise public awareness, several Chinese celebrities have spoke out against shark finning, including internationally acclaimed NBA star Yao Ming and action star Jackie Chan. The use of native born, nationally admired spokesmen lends an air of importance and relevance to the anti finning message, reaching out to the youth demographic as the next generation of consumers. Additionally, non-profit organizations across the globe work to dispel many of the misconceptions and negative attitudes towards sharks to value live, whole sharks. Local and international groups like Oceana, PEW, WWF and the Hong Kong Shark Foundation aim to reduce the consumption of shark fin soup and build support for shark conservation. Through sustained outreach and education, conservationists hope the public will better understand the cruelty of shark finning and the importance of sharks to ecosystem health (Quart, 2010). Further efforts to inspire a cultural evolution must use public education to disassociate shark fin soup with status and encourage the valuation of environmental integrity over individual prestige.
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 (Camhi et al, 1998). Sharks are naturally scarce, slow-growing, late-maturing, long-lived species (Wildaid, 2007). Due to their low reproductive rates and long gestation period, shark stocks cannot replenish their populations as quickly as they are being depleted (Oceana, 2010). Nearly 100 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, teeth and liver oil (Hong Kong Shark Foundation). Roughly 73 percent of those caught are used for the shark fin trade alone (Hong Kong Shark Foundation). Failure to reduce and control rampant overfishing of shark species will result in the loss of a precious natural resource with resounding biological implications.
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 (Camhi et al, 2007). 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 (Libralato, Christensen & Pauly, 2006). 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 (Cailliet et al, 2005).
Because the fins only constitute 2 -5 percent of the shark’s total body mass, fishermen are able to catch, fin, and store high quantities of sharks aboard their ships. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries considers finning a wasteful practice for failure to utilize the entire catch and the multiple potential products derived from sharks, including the significant protein source (Cortes & Neer, 2006). Most scientists believe that the most efficient and practical way to regulate shark finning is to implement fin-attached laws, requiring that all sharks be landed whole with their fins naturally attached (IUCN, 2003). The possession of detached fins would be considered illegal, and therefore a punishable offence, thus discouraging the practice of shark finning. Finning bans also facilitate species-specific data collection and promote data collection standards important for population assessments and management decisions (IUCN, 2003). Several shark-finning hubs have already set bans on the possession of fins detached from the body, including Brazil, South Africa, USA, Oman, Australia and Costa Rica (Cailliet et al, 2005). These nations are now calling upon other countries to adopt similar bans in recognition of the high percentage of illegal, high seas international exploitation (Cailliet et al, 2005).
In recognition of the need to transport fins and carcasses separately for storage purposes, the majority of existing shark finning bans use a fin to carcass weight limit as the primary regulatory framework (IUCN, 2003). The most common fin: carcass ratio was first developed in the early 1990s by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Based on commercial fishing conditions, the NMFS endorsed a 5:95 ratio of fin weight to dressed (gutted and beheaded) carcass weight (67 FR 6194). Scientists recommend the inclusion of a 2:98 fin weight to live (whole body) weight stipulation, underscoring the importance of distinguishing between dressed and live sharks as the head and internal organs of a shark account for a significant proportion of its total weight (IUCN, 2003). Exceeding these ratios would effectively enable two thirds of all landed sharks to be finned within the legal parameters (IUCN, 2003).
The scientific community also advocates using commercial quotas, trip limits, recreational minimum sizes, retention limits and limited access in commercial fisheries to reduce shark finning (NOAA). These restrictions are theoretically established according to the maximum sustainable yield principle, providing the largest economic benefit without surpassing the species’ biological limitations (e.g. fecundity, gestation, litter size) (FAO, 2008). Appropriate quotas require significant research to provide adequate estimates of sustainable catch rates. Many countries require regular stock assessments to 1) prevent overfishing of shark resources; 2) encourage management of shark resources throughout their range; 3) establish a shark resource data collection, research, and monitoring program; and 4) increase the benefits from shark resources while reducing waste, consistent with the other objectives (NOAA, 2000). Shark data collection and reporting, however, is notoriously inaccurate and insufficient (Camhi et al, 2009). Many species of sharks are highly migratory, moving regularly between jurisdictions and marine habitats (i.e. open ocean to continental shelves) occupied by different fisheries (Cailliet et al, 2005). Furthermore, much of the shark fin industry is supported by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), leaving large gaps in the data (Camhi et al, 2009). The practice of finning therefore impedes the collection of accurate scientific data and the provision of essential management advice. Because scientists cannot collect, weight, track and identify every individual shark, mathematical models are often used for population estimations to determine fishing quotas. However, these models are only as good as the data that is put in. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as many as 25 percent of pelagic sharks are data deficient, lacking sufficient information to assess their population status based on life history traits suggesting their vulnerability and mortality from fishing trends (Camhi, 2009). Thus, many models used to compute sustainable catch allowances are scientifically incomplete and inaccurate.
Effective protection measures must therefore include a fin-attached principle to limit the total number of sharks caught and allow for accurate data collection and assessment. Without these measures, shark-finning will continued unchecked, eventually leading to wide scale environmental disruption and collapse. It is incumbent upon the legal and political bodies to appropriately determine and enforce shark-finning laws in support of ecosystem wide conservation efforts.
To facilitate shark conservation, science-based policy must dictate and enforce sustainable use and behavior. The existing political framework governing the take and distribution of sharks and shark products is insufficient and ineffective. No single comprehensive global regime exists to coordinate shark fishing or finning; all regulations are implemented on a national level within each country’s respective exclusive economic zone (Cahmi et al, 2009). Only 25 shark fishing nations have established management directives incorporating shark fin mandates or regulations (Cahmi et al, 2009). Several of those nations support the world’s largest and most influential shark fin fisheries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Oman, Malta, Namibia, Honduras, Maldives, Philippines, Israel, Thailand, South Africa, and Brazil (Cahmi et al, 2009). Only five western industrialized nations have adopted comprehensive shark management plans (U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), despite the relative abundance of sharks and regulatory capacity of developed nations (Cong. Rec. H11154). Fragmented finning regulations exist elsewhere in developing nations like South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand, Israel, Namibia, Maldives, and Honduras (Mayell, 1998). However, global shark fin bans are inconsistent and poorly enforced, enabling the shark fin industry to exploit the global commons without restraint. Regulations range from poorly defined fin –attached laws (Costa Rica) to complete bans on shark finning (Ecuador) (Mayell, 1998).
Significant barriers to effective shark finning bans include the disparity between state, federal, and transnational governance and the lack of sufficient species-specific population data representing true catch and discard values (Camhi 1998). Because sharks are migratory, they frequently move between state, federal and international waters, subject to a myriad of conflicting regulations. The absence of global governance is further attributed to the lack of awareness, both of current population declines and total fishing pressure (Cong. Rec. H11154).
In recognition of the declining shark stocks across the world, the international community has laid out several loose frameworks to better regulate shark populations. The first major global convention addressing international fishery management was the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) in 1982. UNCLOS promoted the conservation, management and utilization of marine resources via sub-regional, regional, and global organizations (UN). The Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of UNCLOS Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks later entered into force as international law in 1995, obligating coastal states and high seas fishing states to work jointly towards effective management (Spiegel). In response, shark specific management plans emerged across the spectrum, ranging from country to multinational commitments. The Food and Agriculture Organization Committee on Fisheries authorized the United Nations International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks in 1999, requiring member states to implement national programs for shark conservation, management and monitoring. The United Nations Environment Program Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals agreed upon a Memorandum of Understanding in February of 2010 acknowledging the need for shark conservation, though no action has been determined. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the multinational body regulating the international trade of species, including shark fins, adopted the Resolution on the Biological and Trade Status of Sharks which requested that the FAO and other international fisheries management organizations establish programs to collect and assemble the necessary biological and trade data on shark species, and all nations utilizing and trading specimens of shark species cooperate with FAO and other international fisheries management organizations (Greboval).
Select regional governing bodies have been somewhat successful in regulating shark conservation policies within their respective exclusive economic zone. In 2001 and 2010, Palau and the Maldives respectively established national shark sanctuaries prohibiting shark finning to stave off foreign fishing fleets from decimating local shark populations. In the United States, Rep. Madeline Bordallo (D-GU) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) introduced the U. S. Shark Conservation Act of 2009 to the Senate and House of Representatives (S. 850, H.R. 81) prohibiting the removal of shark fins. Hawaii became the first and only state in the U.S. to completely ban the sale, distribution and possession of shark fins (SB2169 SD2 HD2 CD1), specifically targeting the shark fin industry.
Several multinational governing bodies, however, have not had so much success. Despite widely recognized scientific assessments reporting as many as 50 shark species as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, only whale, white, and basking sharks are internationally protected under CITES (Spiegel). The recent CITES meeting in Doha, Qatar rejected proposals to list eight vulnerable shark species on the Appendix, thus denying them trade protection. Months prior to the CITES decision, the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) failed to set catch limits on mako sharks or to strengthen the ICCAT finning ban, as proposed by several countries.
While some countries are moving forward with shark conservation, the international community lacks unifying protective measures. Recognizing the economic and cultural significance of the shark fin industry, governing bodies acknowledge that a worldwide finning ban is impractical. Rather, the conservation community advocates a cohesive, comprehensive set of global regulations aimed at reducing the current fishing pressures on shark populations.
Shark fin soup has not only become an international dish, it has become an international crisis. The exploitation of sharks is a global phenomenon exacerbated by the growing appetite for shark fin soup and ineffective political protection. Given the dyer state of shark populations across the world and their intrinsic vulnerability to overfishing, comprehensive regulations are needed with strong enforcement elements to ensure compliance. Current finning regulations are too often ill managed or nonexistent; national and international guidelines are disjointed, ineffective and misinformed. The current gaps in scientific knowledge hinder our ability to adequately assess catch rates and understand the true magnitude of rampant overfishing. Preventative and restorative efforts must operate across sectors to engage the entire supply chain from the consumer through to the fisherman, the supplier and the local authority. To do so, decision makers must gain a better understanding of the cultural and biological mechanisms threatening shark populations to create, enact and enforce effective policy. To help direct these efforts, the community needs a strong lobbying body to promote shark conservation among the consumer base and in the political arena. These efforts, comprised of government and nongovernmental bodies, must raise awareness about the anthropological, biological and political implications of shark finning to encourage strong prohibitive legislation and decrease the consumption of shark fin soup, thus eliminating the incentive to fin a shark.
Only through coordinated efforts can effective conservation be achieved and sustained to limit the slaughter of sharks for their fins.