100 Million. That’s the staggering number of sharks purportedly killed each year, according to savingsharks.com, sharkwater.com, the nonprofit WildAid and Anderson Cooper’s 360° blog. The number has become a rallying point for ocean advocates, but is it true? Not quite.
Without a doubt, sharks are in serious trouble. A 2006 research paper published in the journal Ecology Letters found that the amount of shark meat in the fin trade is three to four times higher than shark catch globally reported and that current catches are exceeding maximum sustainable yields. Researchers estimated that between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone. A substantial amount of catch is illegally taken and unreported, and therefore unregulated, say the authors. Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing given their life history: They grow slowly and produce few young.
The finning itself is a barbaric affair. Some, or all, of the shark’s four fins are hacked off before the animal is thrown back to the sea. Unable to swim, it sinks to the seabed to slowly die. Demand for shark fin soup is increasing by 5% a year, according to Shark Trust, particularly in China and Hong Kong, where the soup is considered a delicacy and a status symbol. The wildlife conservation group Wildaid estimates that shark fin is now the most expensive seafood product in the world, selling for about $350 per pound on the Hong Kong market.
According to experts, sharks in the Tropical Pacific have declined by 90% in the past 50 years. Around the world, 17 nations have acted against shark finning, including the Maldives in 2008. Jean Luc Solandt of the UK’s Marine Conservation Society says: “The Maldives ban was significant, closing the loophole of by-catch, and stowed landings of fins, separate to carcasses. It’s a much more enforceable law than placing a limit on the number of fins landed.” The tourist diving industry (more profitable for the Maldives than shark trade) lobbied hard for the ban. In 2009 the UK enacted a complete ban on shark finning—the only country in the EU to do so—also closing the aforementioned loophole. Although both Ecuador and Costa Rica have banned shark finning, their shark-rich waters, including the protected Galapagos, continue to be heavily poached and enforcement is largely ineffective. In June, Hawaii became the first U.S. state with a shark protection law—when it made it illegal to possess, sell or distribute shark fins.