Sharks have been feared hunters ever since people first observed them swimming in the vast ocean. Yet today, sharks are declining rapidly on a global scale because humans have replaced them as the ocean's top predators. One way that humans hunt sharks is by using a practice called shark finning. This is the process of slicing off a shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the still-living body, often by dumping it back into the ocean.
Shark fins are tempting targets for fishermen because they have high monetary and cultural value. They are used in a popular dish called shark fin soup, which is a symbol of status in Chinese culture. In the past, Chinese Emperors favored the soup as a dish that honored guests because it was thought to have medicinal benefits and represented a victory against powerful sharks. This popularity has not faded with time, and has even expanded with China's growing population. Today shark fin soup is still prevalent and has become a staple for more than just emperors on special occasions. As a result, fishermen have a large incentive to gather and sell shark fins.
Many fishermen prefer to practice shark finning instead of bringing whole sharks to the market because the fins are far more valuable than the rest of the body, sometimes selling for as much as $500 a pound ($1,100 a kilogram). Instead, fishermen choose to keep just the shark fins—only one to five percent of a shark’s weight—and throw the rest of the shark away rather than have the less valuable parts take up space on the boat. The finned sharks are often thrown back into the ocean alive, where they do not die peacefully: unable to swim properly and bleeding profusely, they suffocate or die of blood loss.
However, the animal cruelty implications are not the only reason to stop this practice. Another major factor is that shark fisheries—and finning in particular—are having catastrophic effects on shark populations around the world. Approximately 100 million sharks are killed globally each year, and one of the major incentives for this is the shark fin trade. With their slow growth and low reproductive rates, sharks are highly susceptible to extinction, and it is difficult for many shark species to replenish their populations as quickly as they are being diminished. Many species of sharks are currently in danger due to shark finning, including the scalloped hammerhead, which is endangered, and the smooth hammerhead, which is vulnerable according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Between 1.3 and 2.7 million of just these two sharks are killed every year in the shark fin trade, and the northwestern Atlantic population of the scalloped hammerhead declined from around 155,500 in 1981 to 26,500 in 2005. Today, some shark populations have decreased by 60-70% due to human shark fisheries.
Such dramatic population plunges are not only dangerous for sharks but also for entire ecosystems. When shark populations decrease, a ripple effect can spread (pdf) throughout the rest of the ecosystem. For instance, the loss of the smooth hammerhead caused their prey, rays, to increase. The larger ray population now eats more scallops, clams, and other bivalves. This not only hurts the bivalve populations and therefore the biodiversity of the ecosystem; it also harms human fisheries. Furthermore, many coastal populations make money from the sharks that entice vacationers to their communities for ecotourism. One estimate for hammerhead sharks suggests that a live shark, over the course of its lifetime, is worth $1.6 million, which is a great deal higher than the $200 the dead shark can sell for. A recent study from the University of British Colombia projected that shark ecotourism will be worth more than the global shark fisheries in just a few years.
Around the world, people are realizing how critical sharks are to ecosystems and people, and officials are beginning to protect sharks on a variety of scales. In early 2013, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed five more species of sharks in its Appendix II, a list of species that are not currently endangered but may become endangered without regulating their trade. Although Appendix II still allows trade in shark fins, the fishing is required to be sustainable, giving the species additional protection. Additionally, many individual countries are making their own protections. For instance, all sharks caught in U.S. waters must be brought to shore with their fins still attached according to the 2010 Shark Conservation Act. Since 1994, 22 countries have placed domestic regulations on shark finning. China is also working towards ending shark finning. To decrease the cultural value of fins, the Chinese government began prohibiting the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets in 2012.
Yet cultural values are slow to change, even with growing support to ban shark fishing from governments and celebrities. Many restaurants and hotels around the world continue to sell shark fin soup. One 2012 survey found that only six percent of luxury hotels in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shenzhen, and Fuzhou had stopped serving the dish. To those who feel shark fin soup is a part of their culture, cutting it out of their diets completely is difficult. Some people support (pdf) increasing regulations on shark finning rather than banning it completely, or using the whole shark so there is less waste and cruelty. Others remain staunchly against this process, making it difficult to resolve this debate. A variety of approaches may be the key to making progress in the future towards protecting sharks everywhere.