Predator or prey? – The global shark crisis

Story and photos by WildAid

Sharks in crisis

One hundred million sharks and shark-like fish are caught each year, according to UN Food and Agriculture organisation estimates. Some species have declined by as much as 80% in the past decade and some may become ecologically extinct within the next decade.

Sharks are indicators of the oceans’ ecological health. As “apex predators”, serious disturbances to their numbers affect many other species below them in the food chain.

There is evidence that some fish stocks have collapsed because of the reduction in shark numbers. The “boom and bust” pattern of shark exploitation has been repeated many times all over the world, with the same result: localised economic extinction.

The global trade in shark fins

In the last 15 years, with greater affluence, demand for shark fin soup has boomed in Asia. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are the main shark fin trading centres. Asian consumers are unaware of the cruelty and unsustainability of the shark fin trade. Increasingly on the high seas, sharks are “finned” and the rest of their bodies, often still alive, are dumped at sea.

Shark meat is often too low-value compared to the target species (e.g. tuna) so 95-99% of the shark is discarded to conserve hold space. Shark fin provides gelatinous bulk in shark fin soup, but it has no taste – the soup has to be flavoured with chicken or other stock. While a fisherman in India will earn only US$6 per pound of shark fin, a bowl of soup can cost US$100 in a Hong Kong restaurant.

International apathy

Thirteen of 17 of the world’s major marine fishing zones are at their limits, in decline, or in recovery from overfishing. As sharks have historically been regarded as low-value bycatch, no effort has been put into managing shark fisheries. There are very few accurate data on overall shark catches, let alone by species, and only four countries (USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) have any shark management plan at all.

Many subsistence fishermen and communities in countries such as India, Kenya and Brazil, depend on shark meat as a low cost source of protein. Commercial fishing, often by foreign fleets finning sharks, is contributing to collapses in the catch in some of the poorest areas of the world.

Top left: The morning catch in India. Photo by Susie Watts/WildAid
Bottom right These fins, destined for the soup bowl, are left to dry on the docks in Cape Town. Photo by Bruce McCoubrey/WildAid

The above article is an excerpt from a WildAid leaflet of the same title.