As Shark Slaughter Continues, A Defender Targets Fin Trade

As the economies of China and other Asian nations have boomed, demand for shark fins — a prized delicacy — has soared, leading to severe overfishing of many shark species. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, shark conservationist Sonja Fordham talks about the battle to save one of the world’s most magnificent fish.

Few fisheries are as controversial as the trade in sharks to meet the thriving market for shark fin soup. The number of sharks killed is staggering; scientists who have studied the shark fin business say that 22 million pounds of shark fins — representing millions of dead sharks — are traded every year in Hong Kong, the center of the finning market. Public revulsion is growing over finning, which often involves catching sharks and slicing off their fins while the fish are alive, leaving them to drift to the bottom and die. Largely as a result of this trade, scientists estimate that one third of the world’s 1,044 shark species are now threatened with extinction.

Sonja Fordham
Sonja Fordham

One of the lead conservationists campaigning against shark overfishing is Sonja Fordham, who worked for the Ocean Conservancy and the Shark Alliance before founding her own group, Shark Advocates International, earlier this year. Fordham, deputy chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Shark Specialist Group, is collaborating with scientists and fellow conservationists on an ambitious agenda to restore shark populations.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Fordham discussed the main aspects of that conservation strategy, which include setting catch limits on sharks worldwide, requiring sharks to be landed with their fins attached, seeking protection for threatened sharks under the Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and enlisting the public in the fight to protect shark populations.

Yale Environment 360: I’ve been reading about these absolutely phenomenal numbers of sharks — in the tens of millions — that are killed every year. What is the latest, best scientific estimate?

Sonja Fordham: The best science-based figure is 26 to 73 million sharks.

e360: Per year?

Fordham: Per year. That doesn’t mean that all those sharks were finned, because a lot of shark meat is actually increasingly being used.

e360: What demand is driving this trade? How much of it is growth in China and Asia and the demand for shark fin soup?

Fordham: Shark fin soup is a traditional celebratory dish, a Chinese delicacy. It used to be reserved for royalty and very high levels of society. There obviously has been a boom in the Chinese economy, where more and more people can afford to serve it at their banquets or weddings. It’s a very traditional dish, and these kind of attitudes are not changing overnight. But they are changing. There are a lot of groups working in that region in Asia, trying to educate the public and getting celebrities to pledge to not serve shark fin soup.

There are a lot of people who still remember ‘Jaws’ and are afraid of sharks.”

Most shark species are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. They tend to grow slowly and mature late, and have few young. And we know of many cases of serious shark depletion around the world. As you’ve probably read, a good proportion of sharks and rays around the world are deemed threatened by IUCN’s [International Union for the Conservation of Nature] Shark Specialist Group. So we know that there are very few well-managed shark fisheries in the world, and that these species in general are prone to overfishing and need to be managed even more cautiously than we would do with other marine fish.

e360: In fact, there’s very little shark management, and very few countries have quotas. Can you talk about that?

Fordham: Sharks do suffer from being a low priority, and that comes from a number of factors, including public perception. Although people are becoming more enlightened about sharks, there are a lot of people who still remember “Jaws” and are afraid of sharks. And so there hasn’t been a public clamoring for conservation, like you would have for dolphins or sea turtles. And that of course spills over into the government world, so governments haven’t had much pressure to conserve sharks. We have a much longer history of managing fisheries for more traditional food fish like cod and tuna. Although it’s not as if fisheries for cod and tuna are shining examples of fisheries management, either.

e360: The European Union has banned finning, along with 25 other countries. What’s the EU’s record on slowing down the shark trade?

Fordham: The EU has banned shark finning, but their enforcement standards are among the most lenient in the world. They have a lot of loopholes in their shark-finning ban. For starters, the EU allows landing of shark fins and shark bodies in different places. You could drive a truck through that loophole. It’s important to keep the fins on the shark until it’s landed. And we’ve seen this happen in recent years; Central America has been a leader in this approach. The U.S. a couple years ago mandated that the fins stay on the sharks for their Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fisheries, and there’s legislation on Capitol Hill to extend that to Pacific fisheries. We hope this is an option that the EU is considering. It’s obviously the simplest and really the only foolproof way to make sure the sharks weren’t finned.

e360: Do you know what these fins are fetching per kilogram?

Fordham: The estimate is $125 to $415 per kilogram.

e360: What’s the state of shark populations in European waters?

Fordham: The EU has a particularly high percentage of shark and ray species that are considered threatened. And they have some very clear cases of serious depletion of shark species that have been valuable not just for their fins, but for their meat, such as the spiny dogfish and the porbeagle shark.

e360: What’s the status of sharks in the Mediterranean?

Fordham: We did an IUCN Red List report on the Mediterranean and called it the most dangerous place to be if you’re a shark; 42 percent of the species threatened with extinction. Some species like sawfish are considered extinct already.

e360: What are the other hotbeds globally of the trade, where the fishing has pushed species to a threatened or endangered status?

Click to enlarge
Shark Fin Trade China

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Shark fins wait to be sorted for export and delivery to Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong.

Fordham: You have another hot spot off of southeast Africa. Other parts of Asia are a big concern, but then we run into the problem of a lack of data. And globally very few countries are limiting shark catch at all. About 25 countries plus the European Union have finning bans, but we have these varying standards for enforcement. And then we have no international catch limits on sharks. There’s nothing that says, “Here’s the tonnage that you guys can take every year and divide it among the different countries.” We don’t have that yet for sharks.

We’ve finally seen some sharks get listed under the appendices of CITES [Convention on Trade in Endangered Species], but still very few. This past March, at the last [CITES] conference of the parties, there were four proposals to list eight shark species. All of them were defeated.

e360: What species are on the CITES list?

Fordham: In 2002, we saw the first listing for basking sharks and whale sharks. They’re on Appendix II, which is not a ban on trade — it just sets up mechanisms for tracking and regulating trade, if needed. In 2004, the great white shark was added to Appendix II.
In 2007, we had all species of sawfish listed on CITES. Sawfish are technically rays with long, toothed snouts. They are the most endangered species within the shark and ray class.

e360: We’re obviously removing a huge number of these top-of-the-food-chain predators. What’s the impact on the whole marine ecosystem?

Fordham: We don’t know as much as we’d like to know, but generally predators are important to keeping ecosystems in balance. Different predator species play different roles. A spiny dogfish might serve one role as a predator and a great white shark might serve a different role. But in general, these predators keep other populations in check and weed out the weak and the wounded of prey populations.

e360: The biggest component of the shark kill is the blue shark, right?

Fordham: Yes, they’re one of the most abundant sharks. A lot of the sharks that are finned are blue sharks; they happen to be one of the most resilient or prolific sharks. On the other hand, they’re taken without limit almost everywhere. But in the Atlantic, for example, blue sharks are getting to the point where they could become overfished soon.

e360: How long do some of the longer-lived shark species live?

Fordham: Usually in the neighborhood of decades, but I think that one of the longest lifetimes estimated for a dogfish on the west coast of the U.S. at 100 years.

e360: What is the Chinese government doing about the shark trade? Certainly the fin trade seems to be centered there. Is the Chinese government taking any action?

Fordham: Not that I know of. China has in the last few years become much more vocal at international fishery and trade meetings, and it’s mostly in opposition to shark conservation. They were the leading opponents of proposals to list these eight shark species under CITES this year. They weren’t as vocal about their positions before, but certainly now they’re getting more and more vocal.

e360: In any anti-conservation way?

Fordham: Yes, more vocal and strident.

e360: Has the rise of the shark fin trade, and the concomitant increase in the killing of sharks, tracked China’s economic rise?

Around the world, too many sharks are being killed, whether it’s for their fins or meat, or both.”

Fordham: Yes, we saw a real rise starting in the 1980s. But we have many more conservation groups just in the last few years, trying to convince people not to eat shark fin soup, and working to influence Asian governments more directly. And there’s clearly much more public awareness [globally] of finning. When I talk to people on a plane, just about everybody has heard about shark finning. My arguments tend to be about waste and how finning can lead to unsustainable fisheries. But, clearly, a big thing people are concerned about is cruelty. Many people are appalled at the cruelty of finning live sharks and that is clearly a driving force in more and more countries adopting finning bans.

I’d like to add something on the issue of finning, because it does get the most attention, that it’s really important to know that even if we had perfect finning bans all over the world, that alone would not save sharks. We also need concrete limits on shark catches. Around the world, too many sharks are being killed, whether it’s for their fins or meat, or both, or by accident.

e360: Can you list four or five areas of agreement among shark scientists and shark conservationists about what needs to be done now to reverse, or at least slow, the slaughter of tens of millions of sharks a year?

Fordham: I would start with the public, which is why it’s so important to get the word out about the shark’s plight. The public can help by speaking up for the sharks, and that can be at many different levels — the ultimate authority in the U.S. is with the Department of Commerce. People need to demand better protections for sharks, and that would encourage governments to take our recommendations to set limits on shark fishing, based on scientific advice. Governments are becoming sensitized that they need to do more for sharks, to set catch limits and to make sure they are enforced.

e360: What about the role of marine protected areas in shark conservation?

Fordham: There seems to be increasing government commitment to protecting 10 percent of the world’s oceans. That clearly can have a benefit for sharks. It depends on the species and how big the protected area is, and how much of the shark’s habitat is included in it. But just like finning bans, marine protected areas alone won’t be sufficient. The most wide ranging sharks, like blue sharks, are going to swim out of protected areas, where they will be killed for their fins and their meat.

It should be clear that a lot of these species are already so depleted that they should be fully protected, along with their habitats. We also need to require that sharks are landed with their fins attached. And when species are taken by many countries, we need international protections like we’ve seen for the thresher shark. We’re hoping that in a couple weeks either the U.S. or the European Union, or both, will propose some sort of agreement on limiting catch for mako sharks in the Atlantic, through ICCAT [The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas]. That would be a major step forward.

e360: Would you recommend that consumers in the EU and the U.S. not eat any sharks or rays for the foreseeable future?

Fordham: I don’t get involved in the detail of which animals are good to eat, and which aren’t. But there are a lot of groups making good seafood lists. If people are committed to eating sustainable seafood, they can check the lists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Blue Ocean Institute. But generally there are very few shark fisheries in the world that are well managed. So the chances are the shark is not coming from a well-managed fishery.