The End of Shark Finning?

We have done a lot of horrible and embarrassing things to other species on this planet, but I am not sure if any example is worse than driving sharks toward extinction in large part because of the popularity of shark fin soup.

The story is well known. Sharks – somewhat maligned as vicious predators – are caught by the millions, their dorsal fins and tails are cut off for future soups, and they are then thrown back into the sea to die slow deaths.

Shark fins harvested by one boat, on one trip.

Overall numbers are discouraging. A ninety percent drop in shark populations has occurred in the past couple of decades and most of the 30 species are endangered, a third of them facing extinction. Attempting to get a reliable number of how many sharks are killed annually for their fins is difficult, for it is not in any way a managed fishery. Estimates are in the order of 70 million or more fish per year. Seventy million.

About 95% of the shark fins head to China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), and much of the rest goes to cities where there is a large Chinese population, like San Francisco and Vancouver. Shark fin soup has been an important part of celebratory banquets in China for about 2000 years, and it has become a very expensive dish associated with the rich elite.

But things are changing, and if it isn’t too late, sharks may get a reprieve. Last year Hawaii banned the sale and distribution of shark fins. California is now considering the same thing. Currently, as well, US federal law prohibits shark finning by US registered vessels, and shark fins cannot be imported into the US unless the entire shark is used rather than discarded.

The scalloped hammerhead shark was recently listed as 'endangered', at risk of extinction, in part because of the harvest of its fins for shark fin soup (

None of this, though, applies to ‘foreign’ registered vessels, and of course has no impact on the Chinese market where almost all the action lies.

Now, in China, Chinese lawmakers, led by Ding Liguo and 12 other deputies to the National People’s Congress, are proposing a ban on the trade of shark fins in China. The potential impact is huge.

Of course there is resistance particularly from parts of the Chinese populations in non-Chinese cities like San Francisco, accusing the legislators and environmentalists of racism and cultural insensitivity. There is a point, however, where environmental concern, in this case the actual survival of sharks, trumps tradition. Traditions can be changed – it happens all the time. Not so for extinction.

On top of this – or perhaps driving part of it – is a growing sense particularly of younger Chinese that shark fin soup isn’t necessary as a component of banquets: other expensive food, such as lobster, can make the same impression. A remarkable website, called Shark Truth, and run by Canadian activists of Chinese descent, is having a significant impact in helping to change the tradition.

Shark Truth is running a contest for those who agree not to include shark fin soup in their wedding banquets

The combination of Internet communication, growing disapproval of serving or eating shark fin soup, and laws that actually ban the sale of shark fins in China should actually work. Sharks get killed in other ways of course – they are abundant victims of long-line by-catch – but there should be celebrations throughout the oceans if finning ceases.

This is more than a small success. It recognizes the wastefulness and unethical practice of finning, and it recognizes the importance of sharks as top predators in sustaining the critical trophic structure of marine communities.

Shark fin soup today. Tunafish sushi tomorrow?

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