Shark fin soup has been a traditional east Asian dish, symbolic of wealth and prestige, for several hundred years. In recent decades the popularity of shark fin soup has soared and the effect on wild shark populations has been disastrous. Shark fins are sourced from wild shark populations, usually by the practice of ‘finning’ sharks, whereby the dorsal fin of the shark is removed (often while the shark is still alive) and the carcass is abandoned at sea. By finning the shark at sea, fishers are able to bring in many more fins than they would otherwise be able to if they landed the entire shark carcass. With a bowl of shark fin soup costing as much as $100, trade in shark fins has become highly lucrative and sharks are being heavily over-fished to meet the high demand for shark-fin soup.
In 1999 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) produced an International Plan of Action for Sharks, of which Australia is a member country. None of the recommendations are legally binding however they highlight shark conservation issues and encourage member nations to develop their own shark finning regulations. In 2000 the Australian Department of Agriculture Food and Fisheries (DAFF) established a Shark Advisory Group which produced the first Shark-plan 1 in 2004.
In July 2012, Australia’s second National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (Shark-plan 2) was released. Shark-plan 2 identifies how Australia will manage and conserve sharks, and ensure that Australia meets international conservation and management obligations. The plan identifies research and management actions across Australia for the long-term sustainability of sharks, including actions to help minimise the impacts of fishing on sharks.
In the International Plan of Action for Sharks, the FAO recommends that sharks not be killed for their fins alone and that where sharks are fished, that they be utilised for their entire carcass, not just their fins. In accordance with these recommendations, finning bans have been imposed in nearly all state and territory longline fisheries with the exception of the Northern Territory. In these states landing requirements dictate that when sharks are caught, either as target species or bycatch, their carcasses must be retained with their fins to ensure full usage of the shark.
These moves towards a better understanding of the issues surrounding shark conservation and management are a positive sign that appreciation of the importance of sharks and the factors that threaten them is increasing. However, while demand for their fins remains high, shark finning will continue to occur in parts of the world where sharks are not protected by legislation. Increased public education regarding shark conservation and welfare may reduce consumer demand for fins. Additionally, public health warnings may decrease shark fin soup popularity, as fins have been found to carry high levels of mercury (a neurotoxin) and therefore consumption carries a risk of mercury poisoning.
If you want to understand more about the impact of human exploitation of sharks you can view the award-winning documentary Shark Water at www.sharkwater.com.