Shark finning mystery

Feature Story - 2006-10-05
The photo on the left was taken in a warehouse less than 100 metres from where the Esperanza had been docked. While most of the team had been busy on official Defending Our Oceans business, Alex had come across evidence of a lucrative shark finning operation. Maarten and I joined him and we spent the remaining two and a half hours in Pohnpei trying to unravel what was going on.

A refrigerated warehouse in Pohnpei, FSM. To the left is a pile of finless shark carcasses, to the right a moonfish. In the background are frozen yellow fin tuna.

Refrigerated warehouses in harbours are not unusual. Nor are piles of dead fish waiting for export.  What was strange was the pile of frozen finless shark carcasses. Sharks are frequently an 'incidental' catch of the tuna fishing industry.  Such sharks are termed 'bycatch', and for an incidental catch they're good luck.  While the body of the shark is worth almost nothing, sets of shark fins sell for US$700 per Kg. That is 70 times the value of a kilo of tuna.

An expensive, tasteless tonic

The fins are dried and sold for use in shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese dish which sells for upwards of US$100 a bowl.  Hong Kong is the centre of the shark fin industry with 70% of the world's shark fins ending up there.  As the Chinese economy improves demand for sharks' fins is increasing by 5% a year.

Legal shark finning

For fishing boats with limited holds and long times at sea, shark carcasses are a waste of space.  Sharks caught as bycatch can be legally stripped of their fins - so the bodies can be stored in a smaller space, and the valuable fins dried fresh while still at sea.

Illegal shark finning

Abuse occurs when sharks are specifically targeted, their fins removed and their bodies thrown back into the sea. This practice, known as shark finning, is barbaric and wasteful.  Often the shark is still alive, while its fins are hacked off with a sharp knife, leaving it in agony. The shark's finless body is then dumped overboard and, being unable to swim, it drowns or dies of starvation.  Although shark meat is low value compared to its fins, it is still edible and its liver and skin are highly prized in certain parts of the world.  Shark finning targets only 2-5% of the shark's body mass and wastes the remaining 95%.

Shark finning around the world

Shark finning has been banned in the European Union since 2003, and is illegal in the US and Eastern Pacific.  However, there are some serious loopholes in the legislation.  The amount of sharks caught incidentally varies according to fishing method and circumstance.  So, it is impossible to determine exactly how many sharks have been caught unintentionally. For Longline fishing vessels - which set a line up to 100km long, baited with up to 3,000 hooks - incidental catch ranges from almost nothing to around 20%.  For Purse-seiners 40-50% is typical. When fishing vessels come into ports such as Pohnpei, they must show their logbooks,-a record how much of each fish species they have caught - to officials.

If the weight of shark carcasses is within the expected range for the fishing method, the haul is assumed to be incidental bycatch.  A further loophole surrounds the issue of the fins being cut from the shark's carcass. Obviously, there should only be one set of fins per carcass.  However, the assessment is made by weight, not number.

Determining whether the finning is legal or illegal

The weight of the fins as a proportion of body weight varies between different species of shark.  The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimate shark fins comprise, on average, 2 % of body weight.  This means one would expect 20kg of shark fin for every ton of shark carcass. The US allows up to 5% total shark weight to be fins - this means that for sharks with a low fin to body weight, more than one shark could be illegally finned and dumped for each declared shark. Earlier this week the European parliament rejected a call by its Fisheries Committee to increase the EU's legal ratio of fins to carcasses  form 5 to 6.5%. This would have allowed more than two-thirds of sharks caught to be undeclared - opening a back door to the shark finning industry. The European Parliament is now calling instead for a decrease in the ratio toa scientifically acceptable 2%.

The story in Pohnpei

The refrigerated warehouse in Pohnpei belonged to a Hong Kong based company called Luen Thai. In addition to over 60 finned shark carcases, the warehouse contained a few hundred frozen yellowfin tuna, 6 marlin and 2 moonfish.  I spoke to one of the workers, who told me that the company runs 13 Longliners.  Each stays at sea for about 3 weeks, catches around 300 tons of tuna and in the process 2 tons of shark. The products section of Luen Thai's website lists four species of tuna and eleven commercially valuable species of fish that are presumably frequently caught as bycatch.

The mystery

Legal shark fining is brutal, but no more so than commercial fishing and with incidental catch rates of 0.67% it has little commercial value. Moreover, shark carcasses reek and are almost worthless - so, why keep over 60 of them in a refrigerated warehouse on the harbour front? Curiosity got the better of us, so we asked the guys working there what they were going to do with the sharks. Initially no one could come up with an answer, then they said the carcasses were going overseas somewhere, perhaps to be made into fish balls.  With transport costs being as high as they are this didn't seem plausible.

By the time Maarten turned up with the video camera, the managers had arrived.  They explained that the freezer was broken and that they planned to move the sharks. This made no sense, if the freezer in the warehouse was broken, why not rescue the high value tuna, moonfish and blue marlin? Instead the men set to work shifting over sixty worthless shark carcasses to a refrigerated van.  The extreme responses to our cameras, suggest another motive.

Could the shark carcasses be resident incidental bycatch, always available to counted against fins caught illegally? Perhaps the 2 tons of shark was a reference to the weight of fins collected, and not total weight.  This is not so unusual.  Earlier this year two Spanish Longliners landed 8 tons of shark fins in Suva, Fiji.  With an estimated value of US $5.6 million this far exceeds the value of the tuna they would have caught.

Unexpected impacts

Illegal shark finning has a detrimental impact on ocean ecosystems; sometimes with a direct impact on fish stocks. Many sharks are top predators and as such their eating habits keep the structure and species composition of marine ecosystems in balance.  Removal of sharks from an ecosystem can have complicated and unexpected results. For example, it has been found that the removal of tiger sharks from a tropical ecosystem resulted in a decline in the tuna population.  The decline was because the sharks had kept populations of other predators of tuna in check.

Eradicating shark finning is humane, beneficial for sharks, for fisheries management and for all of us who depend on the health of our oceans.

Watch the 'at the scene video'...