Sharks in the soup

Posted: 9 April 2001

Sharks, the deadly predators of the seas, are being fished to the brink of extinction as the demand for the delicacy shark fin soup soars in Asia, warns a UK-based environment group.

Over 100 million sharks and shark-like fish are killed each year and some species have fallen by 90 per cent in less than two decades, according to research by the conservation group WildAid. Shark catches have risen from 622,908 tonnes in 1985 to over 800,000 million tonnes in 1998. WildAid estimates that a further 800,000 tonnes of shark catch go unreported to authorities.

In the past, sharks caught in fishermen's nets were thrown back into the sea but are now targeted for their highly-prized fins which command greater value than the rest of the meat. As such, finning is now common practice - fishermen slice off the fins and throw the rest of fish back into the sea to die.Shark fins drying© WildAidThe shark fin trade has exploded in the past decade, doubling from 3,011 tonnes in 1980 to 7,048 tonnes in 1997. A bowl of the shark fin soup can cost up to £70 ($100) in restaurants in Hong Kong and demand for this 'designer' soup has been fuelled by the new Asian middle classes.

Such is the profit to be made from fins that fishermen are illegally plying their trade in protected marine reserves and World Heritage Sites such as the Galapagos Islands and Cocos Islands.

Susie Watts, the principal author of the WildAid report, warned that industrial fishing by local and foreign operators had wiped out whole populations of sharks, devastating subsistence fishing communities in poorer countries such as India, Kenya and Brazil, which rely on shark meat as an important source of protein.

It is not just shark fin soup which is popular. Consumers are often unaware that they are eating shark meat. The spiny dogfish is sold as rock salmon in UK fish and chip shops and its numbers have declined by 50 per cent in the last five years.

WildAid is calling for governments worldwide to follow the lead taken by the United States and Australia which have banned the practice of finning. It also wants international fishing regulations to protect shark fisheries and to reduce the numbers taken as by-catch. It estimates that up to 50 per cent of all sharks are caught unintentionally as by-catch in other fisheries.

Sharks have inhabited the world's oceans for around 400 million years - going back at least 100 million years before the arrival of the first dinosaurs. Over-exploitation and greed is now threatening this magnificent beast with extinction, as sharks are slow to reproduce, with females producing few pups. Sharks help maintain the health of the marine ecosystems and unsustainable losses are causing other fish stocks to collapse as secondary predators are not kept in check and balance.

For further information, visit the the website of WildAid.