What is shark finning and why does it happen?
Shark finning is the removal of a shark’s fins at sea, and the discarding of the rest of the shark back into the water. If a shark is landed at port and then its fins are removed, this is not defined as “finning”.
In some fisheries only the first dorsal, two pectoral and lower part of the tail fin are removed, as these are the biggest, most valuable fins. In other fisheries, the smaller ones are also removed.
Very often, the shark is still living when its fins are sliced off: Harrowing footage of this process shows that this is an extremely brutal practice.
The reason why sharks are finned is based simply on economics. In the developed world, shark meat consumption is limited to a few species, while the rest are considered unpalatable. Fishers do not want to fill up their onboard storage space with low-value shark carcasses when there are far more valuable species to catch. They do, however, want to keep the fins and sell them at a good profit when they return to port. Fins do not need to be frozen on board: they can simply be dried on deck.
Why is finning harmful to shark populations?
Because fining allows fishers to catch far more sharks! For the fishers, finning is the perfect solution. Not only do they save space in their freezers while keeping the valuable part of the shark, the fact that they don’t need to provide storage space for shark carcasses means that they can carry on catching sharks until it’s time to return to port.
Shark fin soup
The liberalisation of the Chinese economy, coupled with rising affluence in east Asia generally, has led to a boom in demand for shark fin soup in the past twenty years. It is believed that serving shark fin soup to one’s guests is a way of honouring them and there is considerable stigma attached to those who do not. This attitude reflects a historical reverence for the dish that is believed to date back to the Sung dynasty (960-1279 AD).
Shark fin soup was once the preserve of Emperors and their families. The dish was considered extremely difficult to prepare and only the very wealthy were able to employ chefs who had sufficient time and skill to prepare it. Ironically, shark fins themselves are made up of collagen and elastin and have no flavour of their own. Chicken or fish stock is generally added to the soup to impart flavour.
Shark fin soup is served at weddings and corporate functions and during the Chinese New Year celebrations.
In recent years, observers in east Asia have noticed that shark fin soup has gone “down-market” and that, for the lower-quality fins at least, products containing shark fin are much more affordable. There was hope that this would remove the “mystique” surrounding the dish and that consumption would decrease as a result but, unfortunately this has not happened. The wealthy still see it as a symbol of wealth and generosity.
Some high-profile celebrities and political figures have publicly denounced the consumption of shark fin soup, and some corporations, hotels and restaurants have stopped serving it. However, the education of consumers is a slow process and we are unlikely to see much change in import figures in the near future.
The international fin trade – a multi-million dollar business
Until recently, Hong Kong was regarded as the world’s main importer of shark fins. The volume of shark fin imported into Hong Kong rose from 2, 500 metric tonnes in 1977 to 10, 500 mt in 2001. A large proportion of these fins were re-exported. Since 2001, the volume of imports into Hong Kong has decreased slightly, but it is hard to quantify the exact volumes because a large proportion of raw fins are exported to mainland China for processing, because labour is much cheaper there. Mainland China imposes an import tax on fins from Hong Kong, and it has been reported that Hong Kong fin traders under-declare the quantities of fins in their consignments in order minimise the tax they have to pay.
In addition to importing and processing fins from Hong Kong, China has emerged in recent years as another major importer of fins from around the world. This may help to explain the decrease in the volume of fins going into Hong Kong.
What we know for sure, however, is that millions of sharks are targeted every year just for their fins and the question that the Shark Coalition would ask of consumers is whether it’s worth losing the world’s sharks for the sake of a bowl of chicken or fish soup that has a few collagen fibres floating in it. We think not.