What is the shark fin trade and what does it mean for sharks?
We begin the episode by first getting to know our guests and what it is that they do [4.00]. We learn about Ali’s role as Director of Conservation at the Shark Trust and the objectives of the charity itself, and the focus of Diego’s scientific research looking at various aspects of the global shark trade. We also talk about how they landed in these roles [6.50]. Ali discusses how the ongoing challenges facing shark conservation has kept her work with the trust fresh over the last twenty years, and describes her early career working on the Great Barrier reef and childhood exploring the underwater world in Cyprus [7.11 – 9.56]. She does recall holding onto rocks to stay under the surface as long as physically possible, which I’m sure a lot of us can relate to! Diego then talks of his journey into science, including his experiences in Bimini with Dr Gruber, research trips in Fiji, and his PhD under the mentorship of Dr Demian Chapman [10.00 – 11.37]. Ali and Diego then describe their most memorable experiences in the ocean – one involves a mind-boggling number of fish, the other an encounter with just one very special individual… [11.53 – 15.12]
Ice-breakers over, we then move onto our main topic of the episode: the shark fin trade [15.20]. We start by talking about why sharks are fished in the first place, and the variety of products that are traded on the global market. Diego describes how sharks should be landed ‘whole’ (that means with all body parts still attached), which is the beginning of the supply chain. Various products, including the skin, meat, liver oil and fins, are then processed and distributed to different parts of the world depending on demand [16.12 – 18.10]. Although the media has placed a lot of attention on shark fins and specifically their use in Asia, Ali reminds us that there are a surprising amount of shark products, including fins, that end up in everyday products used worldwide, such as cosmetics [18.10 – 18.48]. Diego tells us about some of his own research which involved testing for shark in cat and dog food – it showed that an astounding 70% of the food tested contained Mako shark [18.50-20.01]!
I then ask Ali to define the practice of finning, which as she explains, isn’t the same as capturing a shark then taking the whole carcass, with fins attached, back to shore [20.40]. Shark finning is the removal of shark fins at sea, and the discard of the carcass overboard – so the only part of the shark retained is the fins. Ali explains the difference between that and other management processes which involve ‘fin to carcass ratios’, where fins are allowed to be removed at sea and stored separately provided the carcass is retained [21.34]. However, one of the big problems here is that it can be very easy for this system to be abused – for example, fins from larger shark species could be kept with smaller carcasses. This is why it is important for governments to adopt ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ (FNA) policies, meaning that fisheries must land the sharks with the fins still naturally attached to their bodies [22.51 – 24.06]. This makes fisheries management and law enforcement much simpler.
We then talk about the demand for shark fins. Diego explains that shark finning started as a way to maximise profit from a single fishing trip, as more fins could fit on a boat without the carcasses – at the time, fins were of a higher value than any other part of a shark [25.25 – 26.00]. The reason fins were, and are, so valuable is because they are considered a delicacy in China and south-east Asia as part of shark-fin soup (it should be noted that shark fin soup is also consumed in other parts of the world). Diego also makes the excellent point that shark finning is part of a much bigger issue: overfishing [26.17 – 28.29]. Millions of sharks are still landed whole, and the amount of shark meat being consumed and traded has increased in recent years, as has the value of shark meat. So, this could actually deter finning practices, as throwing carcasses back to sea is effectively losing money. However, as Ali agrees, stopping finning and prohibiting the fin trade – although a hugely important and necessary step - does not end all threats to sharks [28.30 – 31.08].
So, what are the actual impacts of the fin trade on sharks? We discuss the devastating impact the fin trade has had on global shark populations, including the unprecedented decline of many species [31.17 – 34.37]. Diego references his research, which suggests that the majority of the fin trade is comprised of threatened species – of the 10 most common species found, 9 are threatened. Diego and Ali also talk about the intense fishing pressure on sharks in general, across the globe, and reference two pivotal papers which you can find here and here. We also spend a bit of time discussing the blue shark – a species that is currently listed as near threatened with a higher reproductive rate than most sharks, and dominates the fin trade [38.40 – 40.42].
This leads us to a conversation about how shark fisheries are currently regulated and governed at different levels [41.56 – 46.25]. We talk about some of the key regulatory bodies operating at international and regional scales and also discuss some of the problems in the system including in compliance, enforcement and implementation. We end our deep dive into the shark fin trade by looking at the tools available to overcome some of these issues, including scientific research and specifically the use of DNA and forensics tools to aid the detection and mitigation of illegal activity [52.13 – 53.20]; and working with governments and influencing policy [54.59 – 57.30].
About our guests
Ali Hood is Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust, a UK-based conservation charity focussed on safeguarding the future of sharks through science, education, influence and action. She has worked in marine conservation for over 20 years, with roles at the Marine Biological Association and British Antarctic Survey before joining the Shark Trust in 2002. Through her role, Ali works to develop sustainable fisheries and secure protection for sharks. She represents the trust as an observer to three Atlantic and Mediterranean fisheries management organisations (ICCAT, NAFO and GFCM) and a cooperating partner to the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS). She also contributes to several expert groups at UK and EU levels, regularly engaging with the European Commission and UK Devolved Administrations. Ali was just awarded the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)’s Marine Conservation Award for her outstanding dedication to shark conservation.
Dr Diego Cardeñosa is a post-doctoral associate currently based at Florida International University. His research specialises in determining the species composition of the international shark trade, identification of geographical regions of origin of wildlife products and supply chains at highest risk of illicit trade, and the development and implementation of rapid, portable and inexpensive in-port DNA protocols to enhance the detection of illicit wildlife trade by law enforcement officers in major wildlife trade hubs around the world. Together with supervisor Prof. Demian Chapman, Diego developed a DNA testing toolkit which is helping detect illegal trade in protected and endangered species across the globe.