Nature & Conservation / Asia Wide

East vs. West: The truth about the shark trade

by Naomi Clark-Shen
Length 7 min

In the early 2000s, viral videos of finless—but breathing—sharks being thrown into the water created hysteria and shone the spotlight on shark fin soup. But recently, the West has been caught red handed: revelations that they eat shark meat have left the East feeling victimised for shouldering the bad publicity alone.

People are now asking: what is the truth behind the shark trade, and has the focus on Asia masked what is really going on?

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.

Countries that report catching the most shark (and sometimes rays are grouped together with shark) – information taken FAO FishStat Plus,

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.

Top 10 importers of fin and meat from 2000 – 2011 – information taken from FAO. ‘State of the Global Market for Shark Products’, 2015.

Both fins and meat have been consumed for centuries. Shark fin dates back to Emperor Taizu in China who reigned from 960–976, and shark meat was consumed during the Viking era which began in 800 AD, and as far back as the 4th century.

Today, the trade of shark meat and fins is going strong.

Values rounded. Information taken from FAO. ‘State of the Global Market for Shark Products’, 2015.

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.

2. While imports of fins have remained fairly stagnant over time, imports of meat have increased by 40 percent. Its value has also risen by over 60 percent.

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.

Top 10 exporters of fin and meat from 2000 – 2011 – information taken from FAO. ‘State of the Global Market for Shark Products’, 2015.

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.

Global overview of countries involved in the shark trade – including those who catch, consume and trade

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;

An infographic showing the three different methods of sustainably catching sharks.

Currently, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishingknown 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?

By 2025, our human population is projected to reach 8.1 billion —almost a billion more than in 2013. In line with this, seafood production is  projected to increase by 17 percent.

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.


  • food security,
  • marine conservation,
  • shark

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at