Who catches the most shark?
Let us start at the beginning: here are the 11 countries that reported the highest shark catch in 2015— the latest available data. The term ‘reported’ is important here, as not all catch is reported by some countries.
Countries from all continents are implicated— including the West.
Around 100 million sharks are estimated to be killed a year—but the range is between 63 and 273 million sharks.
This immense fishing effort has taken its toll: Since 2003, sharks and members of their close family—like rays—being landed from fisheries have reportedly declined by about 20 percent because of fishing pressure.
86 countries have now reported reductions in their catch. For some species the problem is severe; research suggests populations of scalloped hammerhead have declined by up to 90 percent. They are targeted because they have a large fin.
Meat vs. Fins
After being caught, where do the sharks go? From 2000 – 2011 (the latest publicly available data) the majority of fins were imported and consumed by a few countries in Asia. The largest consumers of meat were in South America, Europe, and Korea.
Other countries may be key importers but then re-export the product. This makes them traders but not necessarily key consumers.
The graphs show three main things:
1. In terms of volume, more meat is traded than fin. Fins are estimated to make up only five percent of a shark’s body weight, accounting for this difference in volume.
3. While more meat is traded by volume, pound for pound, shark fin is significantly more valuable. In the year 2000, fins were around 1000% more valuable, and as meat gained value fins dropped to around 700% more valuable in 2011.
(While fin is a high end item, shark meat is a low cost product: In Costa Rica, shark meat is one of the cheapest seafood products available at 25 percent below other cheap alternatives. It is described as important for the most vulnerable parts of society.)
Why has meat increased in volume and value?
The trade in shark meat is increasing and there are a few theories for why. After public outrage over “finning”, some countries made it compulsory to land the whole shark instead of taking just the fins and throwing the body into the sea. This could have created a new market for shark meat.
It may also be that demand for seafood is increasing. Between 1976 and 2014, world trade in fish for human consumption increased by 515 percent. Shark may be used because other marine stocks—threatened themselves—cannot give more.
The burning question is this: is it demand for fins or meat that are killing sharks? The simple answer is that it varies by country. In Indonesia and the USA, it was reportedly fins that drove shark fishing. In some fisheries in Europe however, it is the meat that drives the catch. Instead of throwing the fins away, they now send them to Asia.
Our demand for other seafood also kills sharks: a considerable number of sharks are accidentally caught in fisheries targeting other species.
Who else is involved?
The shark trade is also about those who facilitate the movement of shark products from countries of catch, to countries of consumption. These are the traders. This brings new countries to the picture—including the United Kingdom, Thailand, New Zealand, the UAE, and Yemen.
Here are the top exporters of fins and meat from 2000 – 2011—the latest publicly available data.
So where does the responsibility lie?
When we combine all of the above (those who catch, consume, and trade) we realise the issue is truly global—with almost 30 countries in every continent strongly implicated.
To various NGOs, the solution is to ban the sale of shark products—and their campaigns have focused on this. For some scientists however, sustainable shark fishing is a more feasible solution, in part because of the important role sharks will have to play in global food security amid rising human populations.
There is also a concern that when a trade in an animal is banned, the ability to regulate it diminishes—as the trade moves “underground” to illegal markets. This has been seen with tigers and rhinos, which continue to be illegally poached for their body parts.
Currently, around nine percent of shark fin in trade is from a sustainable source. Similar data for meat is not available. Making shark fishing sustainable is challenging, but can involve implementing the following;
Currently, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing—known as IUU fishing – is responsible for the death around 60 million sharks a year. Step three —shown above— is vital to end this.
So what next?
If sharks are under pressure now, what does the future hold? It is not just sharks, but all seafood stocks, that faces an uncertain future.
This global problem needs global solutions – and it needs them fast.