Shark Finning: Slipping through the Nets of International Law

Across the world, the multi-billion dollar shark finning industry has been responsible for decimating the population of one of nature’s most majestic creatures. Despite a multitude of bans on this practice across the globe, finning continues to be a pressing problem for the future of biodiversity in the oceans. One of the world’s oldest creatures and a top predator is in danger due to the massive amounts of profit on the line in this illicit trade.

Image courtesy of Zac Wolf, © 2006, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Zac Wolf, © 2006, some rights reserved.

Shark finning is the process of removing and obtaining a shark’s fin, the most commercially valuable part of the shark, while discarding the rest of the fish back into the water. This cruel practice means that sharks, unable to use their fins to propel themselves forward and take oxygen into their gills, drown in the water or are eaten alive by other fish.  The scale of the finning industry has led to many species of sharks being declared endangered, most famously the hammerhead shark, which has declined at least 80 per cent in the past 25 years.[1] These predators have been on the earth for 400 million years and risk extinction within generations if steps are not taken to eradicate this brutal practice.

Shark finning is a hugely profitable industry with a massive Asian market, particularly in China, where shark fin soup is an ancient delicacy. The soup is presented as a sign of status and respect, often at weddings and other large celebrations. One of the most difficult challenges facing marine conservationists is working to ensure the preservation of shark species without infringing on the cultural rights of those for whom the soup is embedded in tradition. Despite the mounting cost of this soup, the rise of the middle class, particularly in China, has massively increased demand, leading to an outrageous number of sharks being killed every day to serve the global industry. In Shark Bait, the 2011 documentary on the illegal shark fin trade by Gordon Ramsay, the famous chef demonstrates the ease with which one can find the fins both in restaurants and on the black market. With the industry worth an unbelievable amount (according to the documentary Sharkwater, only the drug trade yields more in profit), it is unsurprising that people are unwilling to act to preserve the shark.

Over the summer, the EU finally closed a legislative loophole that will hopefully dramatically decrease the number of sharks that are killed by this cruel custom every day. Though the practice was technically banned by the European Union in 2003, it was one of the weakest environmental bans in the world and was notoriously easy to violate. Special permits granted in shark finning states like Spain and Portugal allowed fishermen to remove fins on board and then land shark bodies and fins separately at different ports. If inspections were made, prosecution was extremely difficult – inspectors had to rely on fishermen’s logbooks and make calculations based on the theoretical weight of the shark’s body with or without the fins. This loophole was remedied by introducing amendments to the legislation that required sharks to be landed with their fins naturally attached. While this is an encouraging prospect for the sharks in Europe and surrounding waters, why has it taken ten years to close a loophole that caused devastating effects to the shark population? And how does this delayed solution shed greater insight into how we perceive urgent environmental issues?

For marine conservationists, current regulation of fisheries isn’t enough. Legislative loopholes of this kind, or outright inaction, have allowed the marine environment to be depleted with no accountability. Despite regulations on many of the other of the five global commons, the high seas have been notoriously ignored and egregiously abused. Aside from shark finning, there are many other extremely devastating fishing practices that continue to be ignored by governments around the world. Our oceans are being overfished at a rate incomprehensible to most – according to the World Wildlife Fund, the global fishing fleet is roughly three times bigger than what the oceans can support in a sustainable fashion.[2]

And not only sharks are at risk: by-catch from longline fishing, the process of accidentally catching non-target species and then discarding them back into the ocean either dead or critically injured has plagued many species, particularly sea turtles. Though Turtle Excluder Devices were introduced as mandatory on all US large commercial shrimp fishing boats in the 1980s, small shallow water shrimp vessels have found a legal loophole in the size requirements to bypass the use of this essential piece of equipment.[3] The Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley turtles are now two of the most critically endangered species of sea turtle, and many others are classified as vulnerable according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. These issues can only be resolved with appropriate subsidisation of sustainable fishing techniques.

However, there have been encouraging developments in marine preservation, particularly in the shark finning industry. Last week, a new ban was put into place in Hong Kong, banning shark fin soup and blue fin tuna at government events, as well as prohibiting government officials from accepting either dish even at non-government events.  In general, the younger generation, particularly in China, is beginning to turn away from the shark fin soup tradition, changing the cultural norms that have sustained the growth of this industry. Many airlines, including Qantas, Korean Air, and Cathay Pacific Airways have agreed to stop transporting shark products.

Despite the presence of a horde of different environmental agreements, legislative loopholes and free riding of non-signatory states have prevented these agreements from fully accomplishing what they set out to do. The ocean is still incorrectly seen as an unlimited resource, and economic gains will almost always take precedence over conservation efforts. Preserving the marine environment will only work if all states invest funds and dedicate effort to ensuring that these species prosper for generations beyond our own.

[1] The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2013

[2] WWF Unsustainable Fishing Practices,, accessed 24 September 2013

[3] “Closing the loophole on sea turtle bycatch”, Sea Turtle Camp, May 10th, 2012, accessed 25September 2013