Nature & Conservation / Asia Wide

Is consumption of shark fin sustainable?

by Kathy Xu
Length 9 min

As the Lunar New Year comes around the corner, family reunion feasts increase at hotels and restaurants. The question of whether to include luxury dishes, like shark fin soup, surface again in parts of Asia with a predominantly Chinese population.
Is it wrong to include shark fin soup on the menu in this festive season? Many impassioned conservationists may jump at the question with a resounding “of course!” But maybe it is time to talk about shark consumption sustainability and consider the bigger picture.

Why focus only on fins?

The truth is, consumer demand of shark fin soup has gone down over the recent years. World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) successful campaign managed to get 89 Food and Beverages (F&B) outlets in Singapore to pledge taking shark fin soup and shark products off their menu for Lunar New Year in 2018.

Change in shark fin consumption over 12 months based on WWF shark fin Consumption Survey 2016

Early last year, we talked about how shark meat trade far outstrips that of shark fin in terms of volume. The global conversation on shark fishing is often focused on just shark fin consumption, and Asia often takes the blame. Yet, there is little conversation about the increase in the trade and consumption of shark meat, as opposed to shark fin. Why is shark fin seen as separate and distinct from other parts of a shark? Greater knowledge of fished shark species, and the sustainability of shark harvests has been overshadowed by advocacy campaigns that call for an absolute ban on specific parts.


How much of shark catch are of endangered species?

Despite the uproar over sharks being finned or fished, no one really knows or asks questions about what species of shark go into the bowls of shark fin soup or other shark products. Without evidence of specific species depletion, the noise made in campaigns may not reflect the true situation in our oceans. It also hinders conservationists, seafood traders, governments, and scientists from reaching a consensus on how to tackle the issue.

Between 2014 and 2016, 9,200 samples of shark fin by-product found in Hong Kong were genetically analyzed in a study, and it was found that 82 species were CITES-listed. Countries that are members of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) have obligations to put in place and enforce national laws to protect against over-exploitation of these species. The good news is that the Hong Kong authorities are willing to work with researchers to scale up and improve inspections of shark imports at the port of entry.

A group of researchers in Singapore also recently DNA-tested 207 imported processed shark fin samples from various sources in Singapore, such as wholesale seafood traders and medical halls. The results showed that 80 percent of the samples collected contained 12 species of sharks and rays that were listed as endangered or vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Accurate species labelling of shark and ray imports, as well as accurate identification of species at catch level would be helpful in order to set catch quotas and put management strategies in place.

Such scientific studies are important in reflecting the real problems of fishery management, in the shark fishing industry. It is important to understand how many endangered species wind up in nets, so that advocacy and solutions can be applied appropriately to preserve these populations. These studies can hopefully point us toward better policy management and enforcement, rather than calling for total bans and a complete end to consumption of specific parts only.


The lesser known wedgefish

Sharks are not the only fishes caught for their fins. The wedgefish, which is a close relative of sharks, is also highly prized for its fins, and is often passed off as shark fin. The desire for shark fin consumption also hurts wedgefish populations. As such, their global populations have been declining by up to 80 percent. Another type of fish, known as the guitarfish, also faces the same challenges. It bears a great resemblance to the wedgefish.

In May 2019, a CITES meeting will be held to decide on listing ten species of white-spotted wedgefish and six species of giant guitarfish, under CITES Appendix II. This means that the threat of immediate extinction will be mitigated by controlling the trade in these species.

It is important to understand that shark fin consumption not only hurts sharks, but other fish types too. While calls for a complete ban on shark fin consumption may possibly help shark populations, it may deplete the population of these other species. This is why more research grounded in science and evidence is important for the conversation on sustainability.

An illustration of the wedgefish, which are close relatives of sharks, and are highly sought after for their fins as well
Wedgefishes are close relatives of sharks, and are highly sought after for their fins as well

So, is shark fishing sustainable?

There are many who espouse that it is impossible for sharks to be sustainably fished. Yet, research surrounding this topic has been done decades ago. For example, in 1998, Terence I. Walker, a biologist specialising in sharks, suggested in a study that shark stocks can be sustainably harvested, and can provide stable fisheries if carefully managed. It was also suggested that certain shark species have higher productivity compared to others.

An illustration of the Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, a shark species known to be sustainably managed
The Atlantic Spiny Dogfish is a shark species known to be sustainably managed

Some businesses have taken active steps to address this, in light of increasing criticism towards shark fin consumption and trade. For example, Singapore-based seafood exporter, importer, and distributor, Chin Guan Hong has been importing the Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, a species known to be sustainably managed. The company even went a step further in its commitment to sustainability by getting their processes certified under the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), allowing for greater transparency on how their fins are obtained.

Data taken from Simpfendorfer, Colin A., and Nicholas K. Dulvy. “Bright Spots of Sustainable Shark Fishing.” Current Biology 27, no. 3 (February 2017): R97–98. This research showed that “only 9 percent of the current global catch of sharks… is biological sustainable, although not necessarily sufficiently managed.”

Calls-to-action for the ban of shark fishing may help in controlling fish populations, but they rarely solve the problem, as most sharks are caught incidentally. In the US, a bill was called to pass the Shark Fin Sale Elimination Act in 2017, making it illegal to possess, buy, or sell shark fins, or any products containing shark fin. However, such bans may actually cause more harm. When US domestic fisheries can no longer export sustainably caught sharks to Asia, the market turns to less or unsustainable fisheries to fill the void instead.

This explains why there has been a growing awareness that sustainable shark fishing is the way forward. In another study of assessed populations done in 2017, it was found that 39 out of 65 populations (only 2.6 percent of global shark diversity) met the criteria for biological sustainability, but eight of these do not have science-based management plans. That said, almost all of these populations are within developed countries, namely USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union. Understanding of Asian fisheries is still largely unknown.

Enabling and supporting evidence-based scientific research can help the situation. In America, the government agency, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) Fisheries, does extensive stock assessment surveys on a variety of sharks, with all data readily available online. This data helps allow fishery policies in the USA to be driven by science.

That said, while sustainable fishery management sounds ideal, itis hard to execute in Southeast Asia, where most fisheries simply lack resources to do so.


There are other considerations

Although sustainable shark fishing is possible, there are still many other considerations to take into account. For one, people are not asking enough questions about their food sources. Sometimes shark meat is consumed unknowingly, as it is labelled as fish. Some species are biologically sustainable without needing catch management strategies. Not all sharks that are caught for their fins are deemed endangered. More data needs to be collected with regards to shark stock assessments for imported shark meat and fins, in order to determine sustainability.

Shark consumption is a controversial topic all around the world, and ideas that suggest consumption can be sustainably managed, is unpopular. Calling for a shark fin ban has been a topic of recent debate in Singapore, although it seems the ban will not be happening anytime soon. A better next step would be to call for greater management alongside science-driven policies and stock assessments instead. It is also crucial that the complexity of the shark fishing problem should not be looked at simplistically, given that there are more than 440 known shark species in the world, each with different fertility, fecundity and growth rates.

Author disclaimer: Kathy Xu has been quoted previously back in May 2017, from her Facebook, about the impossibility of sustainable shark consumption. Since then, her opinion on the matter has changed, after various meetings with industry players, conservationists, and scientists. That said, she still does not support the consumption of shark fin, or any other part of shark for that matter.