Annual Global Shark Catch Exceeds One Million Tons

grey reef sharks
grey reef sharks

By The Maritime Executive 09-17-2018 05:24:01

Fishing pressure on threatened shark populations has increased dramatically in recent years, and consumers should reject shark fin products as a matter of urgency, say the researchers involved in a newly-published assessment of stocks.

Data suggest that global shark catches now exceed one million tons per year, more than double what they were six decades ago. This over-exploitation now threatens almost 60 percent of shark species, the highest proportion among all vertebrate groups.

The study, published in Marine Policy, was conducted by researchers from the Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong, the Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia and WildAid Hong Kong.

Both legal and illegal fisheries are driving the overfishing of sharks which is driven overwhelmingly by the international trade to obtain their fins. Pressure is particularly high in Indonesia where annual catches exceed 100,000 tons of shark a year, says the researchers. India, Spain and Taiwan also play an important role in the catching of sharks and the subsequent sale of their fins in international markets, particularly in Hong Kong, from where many are re-exported.

Lead author Professor Yvonne Sadovy from Hong Kong University, says: “Hong Kong is the port of entry for about half of all officially traded dried shark fins globally, importing around 6,000 tons per year in recent years.” A 2017 study showed that 33 percent of shark fins found on sale in Hong Kong’s dried seafood stores were from species listed as Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Populations of some shark species such as hammerhead and oceanic whitetip have declined by over 90 percent in recent years largely because of wealthy Chinese consumers’ appetite for shark fin soup, the paper states. The authors call on consumers to reject the luxury dish and for authorities to employ the precautionary principle by protecting sharks more effectively. 

It is estimated that only 12 percent of shark fisheries are considered potentially sustainable, indicating that 25,000 tons of dried fins each year originate from other unsustainable, often illegal, fisheries. Distinguishing the species from which fins are sourced can be extremely difficult, as the mixing of catches is a common practice that hampers traceability efforts, and many fins look similar. This mixing often takes place on the open seas or in remote ports, where there is little or no oversight. 

A large proportion of fins comes from sharks caught as bycatch: for example, sharks comprise over 25 percent of the total catch in longline tuna and billfish fisheries in multiple countries. While there are ways to mitigate biologically unsustainable or environmentally harmful shark bycatch, ranging from temporal and spatial measures to gear modifications, there is very little evidence of fisheries management authorities or industry insisting on rapid adoption of such methods. Indeed, bycatch mitigation measures may well be resisted if bycatch consists of sharks for which fins can be sold.

"Ensuring truly sustainable shark fisheries and shark fin trade remain a far-off pipe dream. Simply put, around a quarter of all shark species are hurtling towards extinction," said Alex Hofford, Wildlife Campaigner at WildAid Hong Kong.