For decades, sharks have gotten a raw deal on the high seas, where fishermen have butchered them alive by the hundreds of millions and thrown their carcasses overboard, keeping only the prized fins to sell to Asian markets. This gruesome practice — called finning — has come under fire from conservationists, who say the shark fin trade has decimated species like silky, oceanic whitetip and dusky sharks around the world.
Where have all those fins gone? They're a base ingredient in shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese dish that is today both esteemed and, increasingly, scorned as a symbol of wanton waste and cruelty.
Now, thanks in part to publicity campaigns condemning the delicacy, imports of shark fins into Hong Kong, historically a major market, have dropped by 29 percent since 2011. That's according to new research published in the journal Biological Conservation.
It might be tempting attribute this shift to two types of regulation in some parts of the world: one that make it illegal to sell shark fins, and another than bans the practice of cutting off the shark's fins and leaving the body at sea.
But, as Shelley Clarke, an independent researcher based in Japan and coauthor of the Biological Conservation study (and a less technical companion paper), writes, it's more complicated than that. Some endangered sharks are still being overfished. And while the trade in shark fins may be down, the trade in shark meat, it turns out, is going strong.
As The Salt reported in August, sharks like mako and blacktip were hot menu items in the U.S. during Discovery Channel's hugely popular television series "Shark Week." And according to an analysis by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, imports of shark meat around the world increased by 42 percent from 2000 to 2011.
And the shark finning bans could have something to do with it.
Clarke says bans on finning could actually be driving new markets for shark meat. That, she speculates, is because in places where sharks were once de-finned and their carcasses dumped at sea, now whole sharks are being delivered to port. While their fins would remain the more valued item, it is likely that fishermen may be selling the meat and creating new appetites for a product that wasn't before utilized – bad news for sharks.
In still other places where the meat has long been consumed, including Mexico's Sea of Cortez, demand for it remains the same.
In the U.S., conservation campaigns have produced a handful of state-by-state bans on sale of shark fins. And the new fishing regulations have been lauded as effective advances in shark conservation efforts.
According to Jonathan Gonzalez, a Santa Barbara sustainability activist who lobbied for the California-wide 2012 ban on selling shark fins, the bill "did not save a single shark from our local gillnet fleet. State-by-state fin bans are a feel-good step."
But Gonzalez's main objective in backing the legislation was to deal a blow to foreign fisheries that sold fins — even fins of widely protected species like the great white — in places like San Francisco's Chinatown. Foreign shark fisheries, he says, can be especially problematic due to their lack of transparency, especially if fins are brought to port detached from the shark. This makes it almost impossible for scientists to track which species are being fished.
Gonzalez says that virtually every shark landed in an American port today is sold for its meat, not its fins. And in the Sea of Cortez, shrimp trawlers who accidentally catch sharks have traditionally brought the entire animal ashore, as both the meat and fins have value, according to Maria Johnson, a conservation fellow with Prescott College's Kino Bay fishery research program. In such fisheries, bans on finning and on the sale of the fins would have no effect.
Sonja Fordham, president of the The Ocean Foundation's Shark Advocates International project has worked for years on implementing finning bans. She says that banning finning doesn't necessarily reduce shark mortality.
"It's just a sensible first step [toward shark conservation] to get the ball rolling," Fordham tells The Salt. Catch limits, based on good science, and stricter protections for threatened species of sharks on a global scale would be more effective in the long run, she says.
But even such stricter protections may not guarantee that sharks released after capture will survive. Clarke has reported that sharks accidentally caught, then released, face great odds of mortality — as high as 84 percent.
While few, if any, shark advocates trivialize the importance of recent shark fin-related restrictions, Peter Knights, executive director of Wild Aid, says regulations won't help sharks if demand for the animals is not eventually dampened. "Just like with elephants, tigers, rhinos — if the financial incentive to break the law is too strong, the protective measures will fail," Knights says.
Fortunately, education campaigns that highlight the environmental consequences of eating certain shark species, as well as health consequences of eating sharks with high mercury content, seem to have had some impact. According to Clarke's research, shark fin sales in Asia have plunged as the increasingly taboo delicacy has become shunned where it was once relished.
Gonzalez, who runs a website called Eat U.S. Seafood, says he thinks that overall there's been progress.
"I'm just happy I can walk into a shop in [San Francisco's] Chinatown now and not see imported fins of great white sharks," he says.
Alastair Bland is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who covers food, agriculture and the environment.