Shark Fin Trade

The shark fin trade is arguably the biggest threat to sharks at this time. Traded on an unimaginable scale and generating vast wealth for those at the top, the fin trade and its attempted regulation, is a complicated and challenging topic.

You will have heard and read huge figures associated with the number of sharks taken for their fins on an annual basis, but the only quantifiable figures are those of Shelley Clarke who calculated in 2006 that the fins of 26-73 million sharks are traded worldwide each year (1). Clarke’s results provide the first fisheries independent estimate of the scale of shark catches worldwide and indicate that shark biomass in the fin trade is three to four times higher than recorded in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) global database – a clear indication that shark finning and misreporting is rife.

Not all countries report shark landings in as much detail as they might, but using the best available data TRAFFIC have released reports identifying the top 20 shark fishing nations. The authors of the report identify that this sort of data is critically important for promoting better shark management, but that ideally the data would be species based. They also recognise that trends in global catch are affected by changes in management practices.

Not surprisingly China and Hong Kong dominate the import market. As the majority of fins imported into Hong Kong are then exported to China, China accounts for approximately 95% of the worldwide trade in shark fins (3).

Shark fins are not equal in value but are divided into a primary and secondary fin set with higher prices paid for the primary set. Dorsal fins from Whale Sharks and Basking Sharks are regarded as trophy fins fetching thousands of dollars apiece.

Primary/Secondary Fin Set © Marc Dando.

Regulating the Trade

While a significant number of nations around the world are at the forefront of conservation and sustainable management initiatives for sharks, legislation in many countries is rendered ineffective by loopholes and exemptions – often a result of the considerable level of politics involved in fisheries management.

Several countries manage exemptions to their finning ban through a fin:carcass ratio. This is a complicated mechanism which is intended to ensure fins and carcasses are landed in proper proportion and may be set as a ratio for live (whole shark) or dressed (beheaded and gutted) weight. The IUCN recommends a dressed weight ratio of 5% which equates to a live weight ratio of 2%.

Before the EU Finning Ban was strengthened by the adoption of Fins Naturally Attached (FNA) in 2013, the EU ratio was set at 5% live weight providing a loophole through which finning may have taken place undetected.

EU Fin-Carcass Ratio © Marc Dando.

Fins Naturally Attached © Marc Dando.

Enforcement of ratios is often further complicated by the ability of vessels to land fins and carcasses in separate locations. The key part of any regulation is the ease of which it can be enforced, and with FNA noncompliance is evident – any fin removed from a carcass whilst at sea would be illegal.

The Shark Trust will continue to campaign within the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) for the adoption of FNA as the basis of wider sustainable shark management measures.