Amongst ocean conservationists, and many scuba divers, it’s commonly known that approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year. Of these, 73 million are the victims of the international shark-fin trade, generated by the demand for shark-fin soup in Asia. Shark finning is a major contributor to plummeting shark populations, but happily the past three years have seen a significant decline in the popularity of shark-fin soup. The shift began in September 2012, when Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, announced that it would no longer accept unverified or unsustainable shark fins as cargo. This announcement came as a result of a petition submitted to the airline by a coalition of 40 conservation groups, including Greenpeace Hong Kong and Humane Society International. The letter estimated that Cathay Pacific cargo was responsible for 650 of the 11,200 tons of shark fin imported into Hong Kong in 2011. Hong Kong handles approximately 50 percent of the global shark-fin trade, and as such, Cathay Pacific’s announcement to significantly restrict their involvement was a major step forward.
In the years since, many other airlines have followed Cathay Pacific’s example, either banning carriage of shark fin outright or limiting it to verifiably sustainable sources. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines were responsible for the majority of South Korea’s shark-fin imports, which comprised approximately 84 tons in 2012. In 2014, Thai Airways, Philippine Airlines and Singapore Airlines — all of which are major carriers in Asia — joined Korean Air and Asiana in banning shark fins as cargo. According to Alex Hofford, the director of Wild Life Risk, this decision “will go a long way in helping the shark populations in Southeast Asia recover from the relentless onslaught that they have been suffering at the hands of the shark fin trade for decades.” An industry’s success is dictated by supply and demand, and as such, the restriction of possible supply routes is hugely important if the shark-fin trade is ever to collapse.
If the supply of shark fin is in decline, so too is demand. This due in part to the Chinese government’s decision to ban shark-fin soup from the menus of official receptions and banquets in 2013 as part of a crackdown on political extravagance. Although the inspiration for this decision was not environmental, the sudden disappearance of shark fin from government functions has helped to undermine the delicacy’s previous identity as an indicator of status. The Chinese government further contributed to the cause in 2014, when a reinterpretation of the nation’s criminal law made it illegal to consume some 450 rare or endangered animals, further restricting the sale and purchase of shark-fin soup as a result.
Awareness campaigns are another major contributor to the gradual decline in demand for shark-fin soup, especially those that target Chinese audiences. In 2011, conservation group WildAid launched a series of public service announcements that aired across Chinese and international media, in which basketball star Yao Ming encouraged Chinese people to forgo shark-fin soup in an attempt to save the world’s shark populations.
In 2014, a report published by WildAid showed the effectiveness of this particular campaign, which compiled public opinion surveys, trade statistics, media reports and surveys from shark-fin traders in the markets of Guangzhou, the current center of China’s trade. Of the Chinese consumers surveyed online, 85 percent said that they had given up shark-fin soup within the past three years, and 2/3 of them cited awareness campaigns as their reason for doing so. Such a massive decline in demand has, according to the report, significantly impacted the business of shark-fin vendors in Guangzhou. The combined sales of these vendors declined by 82 percent between 2012 and 2014, while the retail price of shark fin fell by 47 percent. In the report, a vendor was quoted saying that “shark fin is a dying business,” while another claimed that shark fins that were once worth US $642 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) could no longer be sold for half that amount.
The 2014 WildAid report’s findings were verified by an independent study published in the journal Biological Conservation at the beginning of this year by scientists Shelley Clarke and Hampus Eriksson. The study, which derived its findings from worldwide customs and trade data, confirmed that the international shark-fin trade has declined by approximately 25 percent over the last 10 years. According to Clarke, the delicacy’s sudden fall from grace is attributable to awareness campaigns, the austerity campaign of the Chinese government and the fact that shark fin has come to be considered as “unhealthy or passé.” Certainly, it is true that shark products contain dangerous levels of mercury, and heightened awareness of this is likely to be a significant contributor to the dish’s sudden unpopularity. Clarke also believes that there are some doubts amongst consumers as to the authenticity of the product they’re buying, as “people believe that real fins must be in short supply because of the publicized decline of shark populations.”
That sharks are at risk is without doubt — in the last 15 years, many shark populations have declined by up to 98 percent, while more than a quarter of the world’s shark species are threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List. Given the widespread damage done to the world’s sharks, it is hard to determine whether or not the recent decline in demand for shark-fin soup has come in time to make a difference, especially as a host of other issues faces these beleaguered apex predators. Sharks are also at risk from overfishing, whether directly, or indirectly as bycatch. Issues such as marine pollution, ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures also impact remaining shark populations, just as they affect all marine species.
In reality, the shark fin trade must cease completely if sharks are to have a chance of long-term survival. Currently, shark finning is banned either partially or completely in 28 countries and the European Union. Shark fishing of any kind is banned, either partially or completely, in a further 22 countries. To date, 23 international airlines have banned the carriage of shark fin entirely, while another two have banned the carriage of unsustainable fins. Three shipping companies have also agreed to stop transporting fins, while a number of major international hotel chains (including Hilton hotels and the Marriott hotel group) have committed to ensuring their properties remain fin-free. Statistics such as these are hugely encouraging, and allow us to hope that sharks may one day disappear from our menus, rather than from our oceans.