Known as an apex predator, sharks are considered to be some of the scariest creatures on the planet. However, the terrors they bring cannot compare to the horrific shark fin trade. Last week, Brazilian authorities discovered the world’s largest illegal shark fin consignment, seizing nearly 29 tonnes of shark fins from about 10,000 sharks.
The World’s Largest Shark Fin Consignment in Brazil
On June 19, 2023, authorities in Brazil confiscated 28.7 tonnes of illegal shark fins in the world’s largest recorded bust.
The seizure was conducted in accordance with the Brazilian government’s Operation Makaira, which aims to tackle unreported and unregulated fishing in the country. Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama, which was a part of the mission, revealed that about 10,000 sharks were involved, including 4,400 Blue sharks and 5,600 Shortfin mako sharks. It also unveiled that a single exporting company from Santa Catarina was responsible for a whopping 27.6 tonnes of the raided fins.
“It is possibly the biggest seizure in the history of this type of product that seriously affects marine species,” said Jair Schmitt, Ibama’s head of environmental protection.
This confiscation is a prime example of recently elected Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s efforts to protect Brazil’s natural environment – in stark contrast to his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for deliberately undermining environmental protection, including cutting funds allocated to Ibama by 30% between 2019 and 2020.
Shark fishing is illegal in Brazil, and Schmitt further stated that there is “practically no consumption of this type of product” in the nation. The crux of the issue therefore lies in the trade with Asia, which is the main consumer market for shark fins.
Driven by Asia’s high market demands, the Brazilian fishing industry is tempted to engage in illegal shark fishing through improper use of license of fishing. While imposing stricter regulations on shark fishing could help reduce recorded shark deaths, the situation may still prevail through the black market if the demand stands unwavering.
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What Is Shark Finning?
The brutal process to obtain shark fins entails fishing for sharks and chopping their fins off before discarding the animal back into the sea. All of this happens while the shark is still alive. When abandoned, the animal dies slowly and painfully from suffocation, blood loss, or predation.
The most accurate evaluation of shark fishing for commercial purposes is entailed in a 2013 report published in the scientific journal Marine Policy. The study reveals that a staggering 100 million sharks are killed annually. However, due to the lack of high-quality data, sharks that have their fins chopped off and bodies dumped back into the sea are not included in official reports documenting shark fishing. Thus, the number of shark deaths caused by human activity could even surpass 100 million.
What’s Behind the Illegal Shark Fin Trade?
As mentioned previously, shark fins are highly sought after among Asian communities. This demand dates back to the age of Chinese Emperors, who considered shark fin soup as an honorable delicacy to serve high-class folks. It was a symbol of status and the ultimate victory of man defeating powerful sharks. The demand is not even backed up by the taste, as shark fins have no distinct taste at all. When served as soup, shark fins are accompanied by chicken or ham to make the dish more palatable.
Instead of fading away, the symbolism has only trickled down to the modern era. When families reach a wealthy status, they are inclined to showcase this by serving shark fin soup to guests at social events.
China’s middle-class population has been among the fastest growing globally, expanding from 39.1 million people in 2000 to about 707 million people in 2018. Encouraged by culture and tradition, the number of people who can afford and are willing to buy shark fin soup rose sharply as well.
Hong Kong stands at the heart of the profitable shark fin trade, as it is responsible for about 50% of the global shark fin market every year. Unfortunately, it is not illegal to conduct businesses related to shark fins in the city. Just as recent as May of this year, Hong Kong customs discovered HK$200 million (US$25.5 million) worth of smuggled items, including shark fins.
Fishermen undoubtedly scramble to hunt for sharks to serve the market, fully establishing a chain of supply and demand for shark fins. Moreover, instead of fishing for the whole body, fishermen found the cost-efficient yet cruel method of shark finning at sea. They maximise the number of victim sharks with every sea trip by simply grabbing the most lucrative body part of the sharks, disregarding the pain levels experienced by the victims. With that, fishermen can sometimes sell a pound of shark fins for as much as US$500 ($1,100/kg).
The Adverse Effects of Shark Finning and Shark Fishing
Aside from the obvious cruelty faced by sharks, the effects of shark finning go beyond the excruciating pain from chopped fins.
Sharks are highly susceptible to extinction not only because of the number of deaths, but also because of their low reproductive rates. According to a 2021 study, since 1970, the global populations of sharks and rays have plummeted by 71% due to increased fishing activities.
Since sharks are apex predators, they play a significant role in the ocean ecosystem, reason for which a steep decrease in population could trigger a dramatic ripple effect.
For example, a dwindling number of hammerhead sharks results in an increase in their prey: Rays. More rays in the ocean will feast on scallops, clams, and more of their preys. This generates an imbalanced ecocycle, threatening the overall survival of biodiversity.
The effects spread from water to land as well. “In addition to fishing for sharks, which is prohibited, this illegal practice also causes the death of several seabirds, including some endangered species,” explained Schmitt.
The Progress So Far
Fortunately, people from all around the world have grown more aware of the environmental issues related to shark finning.
On January 4, 2011, the US Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act 2010, requiring all sharks (except smooth dogfish) in the country to be brought to the shore with their fins naturally intact. It is argued that this is the only way to properly address and ban shark finning while also allowing the collection of species-specific management data.
Subsequently, the European Union followed suit and fine-tuned their shark fin ban after finding some “loopholes”. In 2003, the bloc banned shark finning, though member states were left with some power to issue special permits to several fishing vessels to remove fins at sea. In 2013, the EU mirrored the US Shark Conservation Act 2010 and demanded all captured sharks to have fins naturally attached.
With its infamous recognition as a shark fin trade hub, Hong Kong has seen some, albeit minimal, progress in tackling shark fin demands. According to Hong Kong’s World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as of July 2017, global shipping companies that account for 79.5% of the market share have incorporated a No Shark Fin Carriage policy. However, there is no sign of decrease in trade volume, signalling its inefficiency.
As disappointing as it sounds, simply imposing bans is insufficient in tackling the shark fin issue. For example, in Indonesia, the act of shark finning is illegal. Nonetheless, the demand for shark fins is compelling enough for a black market and illegal trading to flourish.
In order to hit the nail on the head, governments need to stray away from cultural traditions that bring more harm than good. In this case, we must understand that shark fin soup poses absolutely no value for the palate. It is only highly demanded by Asian communities due to intangible and unproductive cultural values.
With tighter regulations and human will, it is possible to recover from horrific shark finning activities and allow sharks to swim through the seas fearlessly.
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