Shark finning

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NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins

Shark finning refers to the removal and retention of shark fins while the remainder of the living shark is discarded in the ocean. Sharks returned to the ocean without their fins are often still alive; unable to move effectively, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and die of suffocation or are eaten by other predators. Shark finning at sea enables fishing vessels to increase profitability and increase the number of sharks harvested, as they only have to store and transport the fins, by far the most profitable part of the shark.[1] Some countries have banned this practice and require the whole shark to be brought back to port before removing the fins.

Shark finning increased since 1997 largely due to the increasing demand for shark fins for shark fin soup and traditional cures, particularly in China and its territories, and as a result of improved fishing technology and market economics. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Shark Specialist Group say that shark finning is widespread, and that "the rapidly expanding and largely unregulated shark fin trade represents one of the most serious threats to shark populations worldwide".[2] Estimates of the global value of the shark fin trade range from US$540 million[1] to US$1.2 billion (2007).[3] Shark fins are among the most expensive seafood products, commonly retailing at US$400 per kg.[2] In the United States, where finning is prohibited, some buyers regard the whale shark and the basking shark as trophy species, and pay $10,000 to $20,000 for a fin.[4]

The global shark catch in 2012 was 100 million.[5]


Nearly every fin of a shark is targeted for harvest, as highlighted in the diagram. The primary and secondary dorsal fins are removed from the top of the shark, plus its pectoral fins, and, in a single cutting motion, the pelvic fin, anal fin, and bottom portion of its caudal fin, or tail.[citation needed] The term "shark finning" specifically refers to the practice of removing the fins and discarding the carcass while still at sea.[6] The removal of fins on land during catch processing is not considered shark finning.[6]

Because the rest of the shark has little value relative to that of its fins, and because it is much bulkier, the finless and often still-living shark is thrown back into the sea to free space for more fins aboard the vessel.[7] Shark species that are commonly finned are:[8][9]

A diagram of a shark, with every fin highlighted in pink and drawn separated from its body, except for the top half of its tail
Highlights showing the typical targets of finning


On individual sharks[edit]

The sand tiger shark is a large coastal shark that inhabits coastal waters worldwide. Its numbers have declined significantly, and it is now listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List.[10]

Removal of a shark's fins prevents it from swimming. It is therefore incapable of hunting for prey or from avoiding predators. Further, some species, known as obligate ram ventilators, lack the ability to pump water through their gills and must swim without rest; these species presumably asphyxiate if unable to move.[11]

On shark populations[edit]

Some studies suggest 26 to 73 million sharks are harvested annually for fins. The annual median for the period from 1996 to 2000 was 38 million, which is nearly four times the number recorded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations,[12] but considerably lower than the estimates of many conservationists.[13] It has been reported that the global shark catch in 2012 was 100 million.[5]

Sharks have a K-selection life history, which means that they tend to grow slowly, reach maturity at a larger size and a later age, and have low reproductive rates.[14] These traits make them especially vulnerable to overfishing methods, such as shark finning. Recent studies suggest changes in abundance of apex predators may have cascading impacts on a variety of ecological processes.

Numbers of some shark species have dropped as much as 80% over the last 50 years.[15] Some organizations claim that shark fishing or bycatch (the unintentional capture of species by other fisheries) is the reason for the decline in some species' populations and that the market for fins has very little impact — bycatch accounts for an estimated 50% of all sharks taken[7] — others that the market for shark fin soup is the main reason for the decline.[15]

On other populations[edit]

Sharks are apex predators and have extensive implications for marine systems an processes, particularly coral reefs.[16] A report by WildAid on global threats to sharks further explains the importance of these animals.[2]

Fins from the critically endangered sawfish (Pristidae) "are highly favored in Asian markets and are some of the most valuable shark fins".[17] Sawfishes are now protected under the highest protection level of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Appendix I.[18]

Vulnerability of sharks[edit]

On the IUCN Red List there are 39 species of elasmobranches (sharks and rays) listed as threatened species (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable).[19][not in citation given]

In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the vulnerability of sharks.[20][21]

Appendix I, which lists animals that are threatened with extinction, lists

  • Requiem sharks
  • Hammerhead sharks
  • Basking shark
  • Mackerel sharks
  • Whale shark

Appendix II, which lists animals that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled, lists

A further 5 species are listed, to come into effect in 2014 -


A mural protesting shark finning in Wellington, New Zealand

The crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society conservation vessel RV Ocean Warrior witnessed and photographed industrial-scale finning within Costa Rica's Cocos Island National Park protected marine area.[22] The practice is featured in the documentary Sharks: Stewards of the Reef, which contains footage from Western Australia and Central America and also examines shark finning's cultural, financial and ecological impacts. Underwater photographer Richard Merritt witnessed finning of living sharks in Indonesia where he saw immobile finless sharks lying on the sea bed still alive below the fishing boat.[23] Finning has been witnessed and filmed within a protected marine area in the Raja Ampat islands of Indonesia.[24]

Animal welfare groups vigorously oppose finning on moral grounds and also because it is one cause for the rapid decline of global shark populations.[7]

Because of the lucrative profits and alleged size of the market, there are allegations of links to organized crime.[3][25] Opponents also raise questions on the medical harm from the consumption of high levels of toxic mercury reportedly found in shark fins.

Photo of single-masted boat at sea
Shark fin fishing boat off the Galapagos, Ecuador

A third of fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe.[26] Spain is by far the largest supplier, providing between 2,000 and 5,000 metric tons a year.[27][28] Norway supplies 39 metric tonnes, but Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers.[29] Hong Kong handles at least 50% and possibly up to 80% of the world trade in shark fin, with the major suppliers being Europe, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, United States, Yemen, India, Japan, and Mexico.[30] According to Giam's article,[31] "Sharks are caught in virtually all parts of the world.... Despite the strongly declared objectives of the Fisheries Commission in Brussels, there are very few restrictions on fishing for sharks in European waters. The meat of dogfishes, smoothhounds, cat sharks, skates and rays is in high demand by European consumers.... The situation in Canada and the United States is similar: the blue shark is sought after as a sport fish while the porbeagle, mako and spiny dogfish are part of the commercial fishery.... The truth is this: Sharks will continue to be caught and killed on a wide scale by the more organized and sophisticated fishing nations. Targeting shark's fin soup will not stop this accidental catch. The fins from these catches will be thrown away or turned into animal feed and fertilizers if shark's fin soup is shunned."

In 2007, Canadian filmmaker and biologist Rob Stewart created a film, Sharkwater, which exposes the shark fin industry in detail. In March 2011, the VOA Special English service of the Voice of America broadcast a 15-minute science program on shark finning.


Line graph showing the rapidly growing annual shark harvest
Global shark catch, since 1950. Source [2]

According to Giam Choo Hoo – the longest serving member of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Animals Committee,[31] and a representative of the shark fin industry in Singapore[32] – "The perception that it is common practice to kill sharks for only their fins - and to cut them off whilst the sharks are still alive - is wrong.... The vast majority of fins in the market are taken from sharks after their death."[31]

However, researchers dispute this claim by pointing to the data: using a statistical analysis of shark fin industry trade data, a 2006 study estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are harvested each year worldwide.[33] That figure, when converted to shark biomass, was three to four times higher than the catch recorded in Food and Agriculture Organization capture production statistics, the only global database of shark catches.[34] According to the researchers, this discrepancy "may be attributable to factors ... such as unrecorded shark landings, shark biomass recorded in [non-specific] categories, and/or a high frequency of shark finning and carcass disposal at sea."[34] Simply put, they say that the industry is either under-reporting the sharks taken annually, or is frequently engaging in the practice of finning.

International restrictions[edit]

Fresh shark fins drying on a pavement in Hong Kong

In 2013, 27 countries and the European Union had banned shark finning,[35] however, international waters are unregulated. International fishing authorities are considering banning shark fishing (and finning) in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Finning is banned in the Eastern Pacific,[36] but shark fishing and finning continues unabated in most of the Pacific and Indian Ocean.[7] In countries such as Thailand and Singapore, public awareness advertisements on finning have reportedly reduced consumption by 25%.[citation needed]

There are four main categories of restrictions, as follows:

  • Shark sanctuary (an area where shark fishing is entirely prohibited);
  • Areas where sharks must be landed with fins attached;
  • Areas where fin to body mass ratio-based regulations have been implemented;
  • Areas where shark product trade regulations exist.[37]

European Union[edit]

Shark finning was prohibited in the EU in 2003 (Regulation (EC) No 1185/2003).[38]

In November 2011, the EC approved a rule that would require all EU-registered fishing boats to land only sharks which have retained all their fins. Because the legislation allowed fins to be removed on the boat and different body parts to be landed at different ports, the ban proved difficult to enforce. The EU Parliament's fisheries committee supported the EC's proposal to ban the separate landing of shark bodies and fins, however, the committee approved an amendment which allows fins to be removed on board a vessel.[39]

On 19 March 2012, the Council of the EU adopted a general approach supporting the Commission's proposal to close the loopholes in the EU shark finning legislation by ensuring that all sharks were landed with their fins naturally attached without exception. It is believed that Spain and Portugal were the only EU Member States to raise objections to the Commission's proposal.

On 6 June 2013, the Council of the EU completed the final step to close loopholes in the EU shark finning ban. By adopting a "fins naturally attached" policy without exception, the EU has now effectively ended the practice of shark finning by EU vessels.[35]

National restrictions[edit]


Shark finning is not allowed in any tuna or billfish longline fishery, or in any Commonwealth fishery (i.e. federal waters ranges from 3–200 miles (4·8 to 321·9 km) offshore) taking sharks. Fins must be landed attached, and additional regulations apply in some states or territories. In New South Wales, sharks taken or any relevant portion of a shark taken may not be on board any vessel at any time (including after landing) without fins naturally attached (Fisheries Management Act 1994, s.8 Notification – Fishing Closure (Official Notices, 2 September 2011 NSW Government Gazette No. 86 Department of Primary Industries).

Imported products[edit]

In Australia, the export and import of wildlife and wildlife products is regulated under Part 13A of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which is administered by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Regulation applies equally to individuals, commercial organisations and not-for-profit organisations. CITES Appendix II shark specimens cannot be legally imported into Australia for personal or commercial purposes unless:

  • The specimen is accompanied by a valid Australian CITES import permit (Australian import permits can be granted only if an overseas CITES export permit has been granted); or
  • The specimen is accompanied by a valid certificate issued by the overseas CITES management authority confirming that the specimen was obtained before the species was listed on CITES (pre-CITES certificate); or
  • The specimen is accompanied by an overseas CITES export permit or equivalent, is part of personal accompanied baggage and is intended for personal use and not for trade or sale.

No permits are required for the import of specimens obtained from shark species other than those listed above, however, to avoid seizure all products must be clearly labelled or have documentation certifying the species of origin.


Shark finning has been illegal in Canada since 1994, but importing fins from other regions without such regulations is allowed.[40]

In late 2011, the city of Brantford, Ontario became the first city in Canada to pass new bylaws to ban the possession, sale or consumption of shark fin products. In that medium-sized city in which no restaurants exist which serve shark fin, there was no opposition to the ban, which was largely symbolic. Nevertheless, a handful of cities soon followed, notably Toronto, Calgary, Mississauga and several others in Southern Ontario:

Markham and Richmond Hill opted not to bring forth the motion, suggesting that this issue is a federal matter. Chinese restaurants and businesses selling shark's fin opposed the ban, and in late 2011, suggested that they will challenge the by-laws before the courts once fines are imposed.[47] When Toronto imposed steep fines, they did just that.

In late 2012, the Ontario Superior Court overturned Toronto's shark fin ban, ruling that the law as written was outside the powers of the city to impose without a "legitimate local purpose", and was therefore of "no force and effect." The judge accepted that the practice of shark finning was inhumane, but he did not agree with Toronto's justification of local purpose —– namely, that the consumption of shark fins may have an "adverse impact" on the health and safety of its residents and on the environmental well-being of the city.[44] Toronto has served legal notice that it plans to appeal the court ruling.[48]

On December 1, 2012, Ontario Superior Court Judge James Spence ruled that Toronto’s ban was not valid. Members of Toronto’s Chinese business community had also challenged that ban. Judge Spence had said the city does not have the power to enforce the ban. Toronto's mayor Rob Ford in September 2012 believed the ban was not the cities responsibility and so did not support it at that time.[49]

On March 27, 2013 a private members bill to ban shark fin imports into Canada failed in the House of Commons. Shark finning was already illegal in Canadian waters, but there was no law to stop importing into Canada.[50]

On May 8, 2013 Calgary’s City Council decided to wait until December 2013 and recommended leaning away from a total ban and look for ethical sources of shark products. Alderman John Mar said there will be more time to discuss and engage and to look for other options. The new wording in the bylaw was meant to ban the sale, distribution and trade of shark fins, but not ban the possession and consumption. Canada’s city of Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang was at Calgary’s council meeting and said that it was not a cultural thing, and that even China and the Chinese government decided to phase out all shark fins from state banquets. He also mentioned that the wordings of the bylaws in Calgary and Toronto, which face legal problems with municipal jurisdiction, are trying to ban possession and consumption, but that is hard to enforce and regulate.[51]

On May 27, 2013, against the wishes of the Shark Fin Free Calgary organization, Calgary City Council overturned the ban. There were protests against the ban from Calgary’s Chinese community, and Calgary’s city task force recommended against the ban. According to the article in The Calgary Herald, Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi never wanted a full ban, even though he had voted for the ban the previous year.[52]


Shark fins on display in a Chinese pharmacy in Yokohama, Japan
Protestors in Hong Kong, May 2012

NBA All-Star Yao Ming pledged to stop eating shark fin soup at a news conference on August 2, 2006. Yao's comments were largely unreported in the Chinese media and drew a reproach from Chinese seafood industry associations.[53][54] U.S. basketball player Tracy McGrady, a team mate of Yao's, reportedly said that he was impressed by the soup when he tried it for the first time, but was criticized by the Hong Kong branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature for his remark.[55] Late Australian naturalist Steve Irwin was known to walk out of Chinese restaurants if he saw shark fin soup on the menu.[56] The Chinese-American chef Ken Hom sees the West doing little to protect stocks of cod and caviar-producing sturgeon despite the outcry over shark-finning, but he also stresses the wastefulness of harvesting only the fins.[57]

Hong Kong[edit]

Hong Kong Disneyland removed shark fin soup from its wedding banquet menu after international pressure from environmental groups, who threatened to boycott its parks worldwide despite the high demand for the delicacy.[58] The University of Hong Kong has banned shark fin soup on campus.[59] The Peninsula Hotel banned shark fin in 2012.[60]


Taiwan banned shark finning in 2011.[61]


On 15 September 2007, Malaysia's Natural Resources and Environment Ministry Azmi Khalid banned shark's fin soup from official functions committing to the Malaysian Nature Society (for conservation of shark species).[62]

New Zealand[edit]

The great white sharks have been given full protection in the territorial waters of New Zealand[63] but shark finning is legal on other shark species if the shark is dead. The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand are campaigning to raise awareness of shark finning[64] and a number of foodies have fronted the campaign.[65]

At 10 November 2013, an announcement was made by the conservation minister proposing that shark finning will be outlawed in New Zealand waters.[66]


In 2009, the Republic of Palau created the world's first shark sanctuary. It is illegal to catch sharks within Palau's EEZ, which covers an area of 230,000 square miles (600,000 km2). This is an area about the size of France. President Johnson Toribiong also called for a ban on global shark finning, stating: "These creatures are being slaughtered and are perhaps at the brink of extinction unless we take positive action to protect them."[67]


Leading Singapore-based supermarket chain Cold Storage (supermarket), has joined the World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore Sustainable seafood Group and agreed to stop selling all shark fin and shark products in its 42 outlets across the country. The supermarket is a subsidiary of Dairy Farm, a leading pan-Asian food retailer that operates more than 5,300 outlets and employs some 80,000 people in the Asia-Pacific region. It is the first supermarket in Singapore to implement a no shark fins policy.[68]

The largest supermarket chain in Singapore, NTUC Fairprice and hypermarket Carrefour will also be banning all shark fin products from its outlets before April 2012.[69][70]

United States[edit]

Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 (SFPA), which banned finning on any fishing vessel within United States territorial waters, and on all U.S.-flagged fishing vessels in international waters. Additionally, shark fins could not be imported into the United States without the associated carcass. In 1991, the percentage of sharks killed by U.S. longline fisheries in the Pacific Ocean for finning was approximately 3%. By 1998, that percentage had grown to 60%. Between 1991 and 1998, the number of sharks retained by the Hawaii-based swordfish and tuna longline fishery had increased from 2,289 to 60,857 annually, and by 1998, an estimated 98% of these sharks were killed for their fins.[citation needed]

Small tied bales of flat gray objects, messily stacked underneath a translucent tentlike roof between white walls.
The King Diamond II was seized in 2002 while carrying over 32 tons (29 metric tonnes) of shark fins that were harvested from about 30,000 sharks

In 2002, in an apparent early success in stopping the shark fin trade, the United States intercepted and seized the King Diamond II, a U.S.-flagged, Hong Kong-based vessel bound for Guatemala. The vessel was carrying 32.3 tons (29.3 tonnes) of baled shark fins – representing the fins of an estimated 30,000 sharks – making it the largest quantity of shark fins ever seized.[71] This seizure was reversed in court six years later: in United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the SFPA did not cover the seized fins in this case. Judge Stephen Reinhardt found that the King Diamond II did not meet the statute's definition of a fishing vessel, since it had merely bought the fins at sea and had not aided or assisted the vessels that had caught the sharks.[72]

As a result, in January 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act into law to close the loopholes. Specifically, the new law prohibits any boat to carry shark fins without the corresponding number and weight of carcasses, and all sharks must be brought to port with their fins attached.[73][74]

In 2010, Hawaii became the first state to ban the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins. The law became effective on July 1, 2011.[75] Similar laws have been enacted in the states of Washington,[76] Oregon,[77][78] California,[79] the territory of Guam[80] and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.[81] California governor Jerry Brown cited the cruelty of finning and potential threats to the environment and commercial fishing in signing the bill.[79] Opponents charged the ban was discriminatory against Chinese, the main consumers of shark fin soup, when federal laws already banned the practice of finning. Whole sharks would still be legally fished, but the fins could no longer be sold.[79]

In 2012, legislators in the New York State Assembly, including Grace Meng (the assembly's only Asian American), introduced a similar bill. While New York was not the only Eastern state considering a ban, passage there would be significant since its Chinese American communities in Chinatown and Meng's neighborhood of Flushing make New York the major importer of shark fins in the East. Meng admitted that while she loved shark fin soup, "it's important to be responsible citizens." Younger Chinese Americans in New York did not consider it an important part of their culture. "It's only the elderly who want it: when their grandkids get married, they want the most expensive stuff, like an emperor," said one waiter at a Chinese restaurant. Many businesses that sold fins had stopped placing new orders, expecting a ban would be passed.[82]

See also[edit]


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