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As the world races to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, conservationists are concerned that at least half a million sharks could be killed for their liver oil once one is found. 

According to Science Times, shark liver oil is primarily made of squalene, which helps control sharks’ buoyancy in deep water. The substance is also found in plants, humans and other animals and is used as a moisturising agent in cosmetics. Medically, squalene is used in vaccines as an “adjuvant,” meaning that it can elicit a stronger immune response, making them more effective. 

Squalene has an “excellent safety record,” according to the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has been used in flu vaccines since 1997. It could also reduce the amount of vaccine needed per person, according to local news reports. 

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Shark Allies, a group fighting against the overfishing of sharks, says that there are five COVID-19 vaccine candidates using squalene. One of these is called MF59, which contains around 9.75mg of squalene per dose. The group estimates that if MF59 is used to treat everyone in the world, nearly 250 000 sharks will be killed. If two doses are needed- which is likely, according to experts- nearly half a million sharks will die. 

One British company currently using shark squalene in flu vaccines plans to manufacture a billion doses of the substance for potential use in COVID-19 vaccines by May 2021. About 3 000 sharks are killed to extract a tonne of squalene.

The group is petitioning the US Food and Drug Administration, Europe, China and all vaccine developers to remove the substance or find an alternative that doesn’t require sharks. The group also notes that there are vaccines in development that do not require squalene and have encouraged these instead

Plant-based oils can be harvested from yeast, wheat germ, sugarcane and olive oil, but these are more expensive and difficult to extract than shark-based squalene. 

Shark populations are vulnerable because they reproduce in low numbers and mature slowly; already, the squalene industry kills around 3 million sharks every year. Great whites, hammerheads and whale sharks are most often targeted for their livers. Deep-sea sharks are particularly vulnerable because their livers contain more squalene than other species as it helps them adapt to their environment.

Featured image by: Flickr

In early June, a fleet of around 260 Chinese vessels reached the limits of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone around the Galápagos Islands to fish for Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas), engaging in illegal fishing. For months, the fleet skirted this area, drawing outrage among Ecuadorans as well as scientists and conservationists around the world.

The fleet remained in international waters and no ship crossed the country’s maritime limits, according to the Ecuadoran authorities, who detected no illegal actions. However, scientists and fishery analysts say the volume of fishing is so high as to potentially overexploit the squid. Moreover, the boats could be capturing species threatened with extinction. Beyond that, vessels within this Chinese fleet have a history of illegal fishing, according to Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist with the Argentine organization Circle of Environmental Policies, who has studied the fleet for years.

Experts say the presence of these ships is not only a problem for Ecuador but for other countries in the region, too. Every year they travel a route that goes from the South Atlantic off Argentina to the South Pacific near the Galápagos, passing through Chile and Peru. According to Schvartzman, at least two boats that have been caught illegally fishing in Argentine waters and were pursued by that country’s navy were fishing south of the Galápagos in August.

The Route of the Chinese Ships

Between December and May, in the western South Atlantic off Argentina, the controversial Chinese fleet fishes another species of squid, Illex argentinus. Then, between May and July, it moves to the Pacific, passing through the Strait of Magellan, and operates just outside the northern stretches of Chile’s exclusive economic zone. Next it continues toward Peru in the direction of the Galápagos. Then it makes a return trip.

“There are years that they start a little further north,” Schvartzman said. “This year the fleet started the season closer to Peru than to Chile but there have been years in which the fleet has been operating on the edge of Chile’s exclusive economic zone.”

These variations depend on the movement of the squid, said Max Bello, an ocean policy adviser with Mission Blue, a California-based NGO created by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

In Bello’s opinion, the difference is that this year the ships “have come much closer to the exclusive economic zone and two or three years ago we did not have the level of satellite information that we have today.”

Indeed, ship-tracking platforms, including Global Fishing Watch, show that “we are talking about a gigantic fleet,” said Luis Suárez, director of Conservation International-Ecuador.

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chinese vessels illegal fishing
Hammerhead sharks congregate around Wolf Island and Darwin Island in the Galápagos archipelago. Chinese vessels have been contributing to the illegal fishing of this endangered shark. Image by Pelayo Salinas de León.

However, Bello said it is impossible to know exactly how many boats made up the fleet. “All the numbers we have are not real or official,” he said. “We don’t know how much they are really fishing either.” This is because these ships constantly change their registration, turn off their satellite transmitters and have no observers on board, he said.

report released this month by the international NGO Oceana based on an analysis of the fleet’s behavior between July 13 and Aug. 13 on Global Fishing Watch tried to clarify the scope of the fleet and its activities. It put the number of Chinese vessels at 294, compared with 10 vessels from other nations, and claimed they logged a total of 73,000 hours fishing near the Galápagos. The report found 43 instances where the Chinese vessels in the fleet appeared to turn off their tracking devices, each for an average of two days, a common ploy to obscure illegal fishing activity, although there are innocuous explanations for such breaks, too, such as gaps in satellite coverage.

The large volumes of marine life these boats could be catching is the main concern for scientists. The overfishing of squid could cause ecological problems because various species, some of them emblematic of the Galápagos such as the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), feed mainly on them, according to Alex Hearn, a marine biologist and vice president of the California and Mexico-based NGO Migramar. Also, scientists fear that the ships are catching species threatened with extinction.

Industrial and artisanal fishermen in South America who fish for squid are also concerned, as are the companies that process the squid. Pascual Aguilera, a spokesperson for the National Coordinator of Jibieros a Chilean association of artisanal squid fishers, said the fleet “is like a city, a chain, a wall [of boats],” which settle in to fish at the 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) limit of the exclusive economic zone, where the territorial waters of each country end. That is why “we find that the resource is increasingly scarce. We have to go looking for it further and further,” the fisherman said.

Alfonso Miranda, president of the Committee for the Sustainable Management of the Giant Squid (CALAMASUR), added that the concern is greater because this fleet “has illegal and transgressive behaviour within our maritime domains.”

In fact, Schvartzman has identified at least two vessels within the Chinese fleet that recently fished outside the Galápagos territory that have a history of illegal fishing and were pursued by the Argentine Navy, captured and sanctioned.

One of those boats is the Hua Li 8. On Feb. 29, 2016, the vessel was detected illegally fishing 800 meters, about half a mile, within Argentine waters. The coast guard attempted to detain the vessel but it fled into international waters without even responding to the warning shots the navy fired.

A few days later, on March 3, the ship reentered Argentine waters. This time it was heading for the port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Argentina sent two coast guard ships and a helicopter to the area and began a five-hour chase. The ship managed to escape, but two months later it was captured by the Indonesian Navy.

This July and August, the Hua Li 8 was fishing outside the Galápagos exclusive economic zone, as Schvartzman confirmed via Global Fishing Watch. He said this is not an isolated event since the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 668, which the Argentine Navy also chased in April this year for illegally fishing, was there too.

A Regional Problem

“This is a regional problem and all countries have a responsibility. None of them are 100% victim,” Schvartzman said, pointing out that the countries provide logistical support to the vessels.

“Argentina has a responsibility because it should not release the captured ships,” he said. The offending vessels are taken to port, where they stay for a while and operators hit with a fine. “Purely economic sanctions are not enough to prevent, discourage and combat predation and illegal fishing,” Schvartzman’s organization, Circle of Environmental Policies, wrote in a document it presented to the Argentine Congress, which is currently working on a bill to toughen the sanctions against vessels caught fishing illegally.

Ecuador, for its part, has at least one oil tanker that supplies Asian vessels. Last year, the country’s navy detected the Ecuadoran vessel María del Carmen IV supplying fuel to the Chinese fleet while it was, like this year, fishing outside the Galápagos exclusive economic zone. The company that owns the ship, Oceanbat S.A, said in a statement addressed to the newspaper El Telégrafo, that it had all the proper permits to carry out its activities.

In addition, Schvartzman’s analysis shows that Panama has mother ships, known as reefers, that receive fish from Asian vessels on the high seas and take it to ports in Peru and Uruguay. The Oceana report documented six apparent transshipment encounters between different Chinese fishing vessels and a Panama-flagged reefer between mid-July and mid-August.

“It does not necessarily mean that the Chinese ship that passed the fish to the Panamanian reefer had been fishing illegally,” Schvartzman pointed out. However, he said, one of the reasons why such transfers, called transshipments, are carried out is to launder fish. “Reefers receive loads from many fishing boats made up of different species that were caught in different places. This [legally and illegally caught fish] is mixed in the hold and no one can later know which ship the cargo that arrives in the reefer belongs to,” he said. In fact, according to the FAO, transshipment is the biggest cause of illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.

Flor Torrijos, director of the Panama Aquatic Resources Authority, told Mongabay that all Panamanian-flagged cargo ships must have an observer on board. “It is a mandate from the IATTC and Panama that all vessels that provide support to purse-seine vessels must have an observer onboard,” she said, referring to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which manages tuna and other fisheries in the eastern Pacific Ocean. She added that there is “considerable control and surveillance over Panamanian vessels everywhere in the world and now especially in this area [around the Galápagos exclusive economic zone].”

“It is important that Latin American countries form an alliance to fight illegal fishing, and part of that is to prevent collaboration with this fleet,” Schvartzman said, referring to port services, transshipments and fuel supply.

President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador announced the formation of a team of experts to design a protection strategy for the Galápagos Islands. Private sector actors in the region — both artisanal and industrial, as well as squid-processing companies — also signed an agreement to demand the regulation and inspection of distant-water fleets, such as China’s.

Faced with pressure, in early August China announced a fishing ban on its boats in the vicinity of the Galápagos exclusive economic zone. Global Fishing Watch indicates that the fleet moved away from the Galápagos around the end of August. However, observers remain skeptical.

“It would be necessary to study whether this closure is going to have an effect or not,” Bello said. “It could be that it coincides with the time when the resource is no longer in that place and they are simply going to move the fleet from place to place, which is part of the normal action of the fishery.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Michelle Carrere, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Shark finning poses a significant threat to the ocean’s ecosystem and levels of carbon dioxide production in marine environments. Endangered shark species are still under threat despite being protected by shark finning bans and conservation plans. A recent massive shark fin seizure in Hong Kong demonstrates the severity of the city’s role in the global shark finning trade, despite a stern ban in place. What does the future of the trade look like, and what can be done to stop it? 

Shark Finning Statistics

Humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide each year, including tens of millions of sharks killed for their fins. As apex predators (top predators), sharks help mediate healthy ocean ecosystems and assist in maintaining a balanced biodiversity through intimidating potential prey, preventing overpopulation of prey species, and preventing prey species from dominating a limited resource. Sharks’ roles in managing the marine’s environment is therefore essential; without them the infrastructure and balance of the ocean’s ecosystem would be threatened. 

Largest Shark Fin Seizure in Recorded Hong Kong History 

Hong Kong customs officials recently seized 26 tons of dried shark fins extracted from an estimated 38 500 endangered sharks inside two containers shipped from Ecuador. The Customs and Excise Department’s marine enforcement group in Hong Kong estimated the fins at US$1.1 million, which were removed largely from thresher and silk sharks- both protected and endangered species.

According to Ken Chan Hon-ki, endangered species protection officer of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the fins were removed from an estimated 31 000 thresher sharks and 7 500 silky sharks. It was further noted that the fins were to be delivered to restaurants and shops for local consumption, however the ongoing investigation has yet to confirm this definitively. 

While selling and consuming shark fins is not illegal in Hong Kong, it is regulated and requires a license. Importing an endangered species without a license is punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) fine.

In 2018, police officers seized a total of 641 kilograms of shark fins worth over US$65 780, making this year’s seizure significantly larger in comparison. The rise in seizures demonstrates the severity of the role that Hong Kong has in the global shark finning trade, and highlights the ongoing participation in the harvesting and trading of shark fins despite the threat it poses to the species’ and the ocean’s ecosystem. 

According to a superintendent officer reporting to South China Morning Post, the rise in seizures demonstrates an ‘efficient system of inspecting and detecting illegal shark fin activity’, potentially due to intelligence collaborations with mainland China and other countries. Moreover, the increase in seizures may not be a result of a rise in demand. Instead, Gloria Lai Pui-yin, senior conservation officer at The World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong (WWF-HK) pointed out that it could be an attempt of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic as government officials are preoccupied combating the virus.

Lai mentioned that with people dining out less due to social distancing customs, a local increase in shark fin demand is highly improbable. WWF-HK strongly encourages companies and restaurants in Hong Kong and beyond to pledge against shark finning and to stop selling shark fin dishes with the aim of decreasing the demand. However, she acknowledges that the demand may rise again after social distancing rules are relaxed. 

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The Trade’s Link to the Climate Crisis

A 2016 study investigating the impact of shark finning on the climate crisis demonstrated that the removal of sharks from ecosystems may increase carbon dioxide production in the ocean. Removing the apex predator from its natural habitat can increase the biomass of prey species, like smaller fish and zooplankton, resulting in higher net carbon production by the system. The researchers noted that their results support previous findings established by similar studies. Additionally, predators affect the feeding habits of prey species such that their removal can result in a decrease in ocean carbon storage. Recent research has explained this may occur as predators are able to control populations or behaviours of other organisms, which might prevent potential carbon deposit build up.  

Essentially, the researchers postulated that shark finning, in addition to fishing in general, contributes to the escalation of the climate crisis. Their study, along with others, further demonstrates the need to ban harmful activities such as shark finning, and highlights an area of research worth expanding and building on.    

Shark Finning Bans – How Do We Stop Shark Finning?

The UN developed the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks in an attempt to conserve and manage shark populations, as well as to encourage their sustainable use. Though shark legislation varies greatly between countries, many governments have implemented a partial or full ban on shark finning – providing a glimpse of hope for the global ban of shark finning. 

Canada, the first country to ban the export and import of shark fins, sets an example for other countries to follow suit. In 1994, Canada enforced a ban on shark finning with the exception of importing fins, which was legal up until the summer of 2019. In 2018 alone, Canada imported more than 148 000 kilograms of shark fins for local consumption, making it the largest importer of shark fins outside of East Asia. Since the recent full ban, concern around the detrimental effects of shark finning has been raised among the Canadian public, prompting a decrease in shark fin-related activities. 

In contrast, some countries’ legislation regarding shark finning contain loopholes that subsequently enable illegal activity. Indonesia, among others, passed a ban on fishing of endangered shark species in 2012. According to Indonesian law, the fishing of authorised shark species is allowed given that the entire body is brought back to shore for full utilisation. The act of shark finning – harvesting the shark fin and dumping the body back into the ocean – is illegal. Despite such regulations in place, the demand for local shark fin consumption remains high as the market is still being entertained, enabling deceptive behaviour and illegal trading to satisfy monetary motivations

What Next for the Shark Finning Trade?

It is evident that the extermination of shark species has a cascading effect throughout the ocean’s ecosystems that leads to catastrophic ecological and environmental consequences. While recognising the importance of sharks paves the way to greater awareness of the matter, more decisive action must be taken by governments to curb the shark finning trade altogether and punishments must be effective in deterring would-be syndicates. There should also be global cooperation to better monitor and control illegal activities. 

With the continued attempts of raising awareness, implementing legislation, and educating the public on its detrimental effects, the trajectory of shark finning will hopefully decrease in the near future. However, this action must come from the top. 

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Sharks have been around for 450 million years, living through five global mass extinctions. But today, man’s relentless greed could sound the death knell for them. Can new sanctuaries save the shark?

Sharks–the ocean’s top predators–face a survival threat from us. Practices like shark finning- severing the fins while sharks are still alive, and subsequently dumping the bodies back into the sea– together with rampant illegal fishing, are decimating the shark population worldwide. Bycatch–the accidental capture of sharks while catching other fish– also have worsened the situation. At least 100 million sharks are killed every year while 31% of the world’s sharks species face extinction.  

As deterrent measures targeting consumption, like bans on the sale and trade of shark fins, are failing to tackle the problem at its roots, conservationists and scientists today argue that creating shark sanctuaries might be the most effective strategy to protect the species. 

Shark Sanctuaries  

Shark sanctuaries are a government solution to reduce shark mortality in their waters. Whilst prohibiting commercial fishing and bycatch of all sharks, they also ban the possession, trade, and sale of shark products within a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

The first sanctuary was created in Palau– the small Pacific island nation–in 2009 prompting others to follow suit. Over the past decade, the number of shark sanctuaries around the world has grown to 17, covering an area of 19.4 million sq km–about the size of South America.

The results are tangible. Palau witnessed an increase in the shark population. “There is ample empirical data that shows the shark population at Palau’s dive sites have rebounded to healthy and increasing levels,” says Dermot Keane, managing director of a premier scuba diving company and a long-time advocate for shark protection in the country.

In the Maldives, prior to 2009, the government imposed many but ineffective measures to curb shark fishing. But, the number of sharks continued to decline. Authorities finally designated a shark sanctuary imposing a complete ban on all types of shark fishing in its EEZ waters. “Fishers and divers reported increases in shark numbers in the Maldives,” says Khadeeja Ali, senior research officer at the Marine Research Centre, the Maldives. “And we are now playing an active role in regulating the global trade of sharks.”

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A great white shark found in the Gansbaai area near Cape Town, South Africa.

The first global assessment of shark sanctuaries reveals that the shark population decline is becoming less pronounced, fewer are being sold on the market.

The establishment of sanctuaries also sparked a new conservation movement helping to spread awareness of the shark issue. In the Bahamas, where the shark tourism industry is a significant contributor to the country’s economy, the government designated a shark sanctuary in 2011. “It increased the knowledge of the importance of sharks in marine environment amongst Bahamian people,” says Eric Carey, executive director of The Bahamas National Trust. He underlined how small countries like the Bahamas, despite their limited resources, can make important contributions to conservation efforts and succeed. 


Policing and monitoring remain a considerable challenge. For example, in Honduras, fishermen catch at least 100 sharks every day despite a shark sanctuary having been designated in its waters more than a half decade ago. Without adequate enforcement, sanctuaries risks existing just on paper. Authorities generally lack a strategy to comprehensively monitor offshore and remote areas, where illegal fishing boats operate.

Why is satellite imagery useful for ecologists?

Researchers from UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute suggest using new remote sensing technologies–traditionally used for navigation–to track fishing vessels in the open seas. They say it is possible to track fishing vessels over a large swath of ocean at a relatively low cost compared to traditional on-the-water, from-the-air or land-based methods. Careful monitoring of fishing practices will discourage vessels from engaging in illegal activities.

The benefits of tracking ships in near real-time extend beyond just protecting sharks; like allowing for more careful monitoring of transshipments, or the undocumented transfers of illegal catches to new ships, which is often how illegally-caught fish end up in markets.

Stronger cooperation between international organisations, stakeholders, not-for-profits and the private sector can aid in the establishment of protected areas and contribute to their effective monitoring and policing.

Jointly written by Leung Ka Ching, an undergraduate student at the Hong Kong University, Héloïse Garry, an undergraduate student at Sciences Po Paris and Sorbonne University, and Raman Preet, an undergraduate student at the Hong Kong University.

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