With the fins of up to 70 million sharks passing through the fin trade on an annual basis, shark finning is currently the greatest threat to sharks. However the issue is far more complicated than an easy media headline would have you believe.
Shark fins are worth significantly more than the meat, and this disparity creates an economic incentive to retain shark fins and discard the carcass – this is ‘shark finning’. The fins are easy to store, requiring no refrigeration, and the demand for fins is higher than ever.
Trading in shark fins is legal. But the act of shark finning – keeping the fins but discarding the carcass at sea - is prohibited in many countries and by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations who have the remit to manage areas of the high seas.
However many of the finning ‘bans’ are weak, often permitting the removal of shark fins at sea under the proviso that the carcass is retained in accordance with a fin-to-carcass ratio which is usually set at around 5 per cent.
However, depending on which legislation you are covered by this ratio could be set at 5 per cent of the whole weight of the shark, or 5 per cent of the dressed weight (head and organs removed). With a sharks head and organs accounting for 30-50 per cent of the sharks weight, 5 per cent dressed weight is a very ‘generous’ ratio.
Research suggests the fins of an average shark are around 2 per cent of its whole weight, so a 5 per cent fin-to-carcass ratio could enable less scrupulous operators to land two to three times the amount of fins to carcasses.
Now, considering many finning bans also allow the landing of fins and carcasses in separate ports and, as for trying to identify the finless, headless trunk of a shark… well, the enforcement nightmare begins. It is no real surprise then that there are three to four times more fins on the market than can be accounted for through FAO fisheries statistics.
So how is this resolved?
Sharks will be caught in fisheries: this is an unavoidable truth. But the wasteful and unsustainable practice of shark finning must be addressed and an effective first step would be to ensure all finning bans are upheld, that shark fins are not removed at sea under any circumstance – that sharks are landed with their fins naturally attached.
And why the emphasis on naturally? Well, there have been cases where sharks were required to be landed with their fins simply ‘attached’ – and sharks were then landed with fins attached to carcasses with rope, fins which seemed significantly larger than the carcass.
Prohibiting the removal of shark fins at sea seems the obvious way forwards – no need for complicated rules or ratios. Enforcement would be simplified – any fins found on a vessel without a carcass would be illegal, and the ability to identify the species landed would aid data collection and species specific management. An increasing number of countries are adopting this option.
Europe has had a finning ban since 2003, but there is the option to derogate - for member states to issue permits to allow the removal of shark fins at sea providing the carcass are retained in accordance with the fin:carcass ratio.
Until late 2008/early 2009 Germany and the UK provided permits, but they were swayed by rational debate and now require sharks to be landed with their fins naturally attached. Spain and Portugal still remove fins at sea, and with Spain the third largest shark fishing nation in the world this is a significant issue.
The EU finning regulation is currently under review and the Shark Trust, working with the Shark Alliance, will be heavily advocating for the EU Finning Ban to be tightened and enforced according to its original intent – that no shark fins are removed at sea.
Ali Hood is director of conservation of the Shark Trust, and will be watching Gordon's Shark Bait on Sunday 16 January, 9pm on Channel 4.