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January 31, 2007

Questions and Answers on Shark Finning

Humane Society International

What is shark finning?

The word “finning” refers to the act of cutting off a shark’s fins and throwing the rest of the often still-living animal back into the sea. The vast majority of finned sharks bleed to death, or become prey for other sharks. A shark cannot be “finned” at port, as the term includes the act of throwing the body back into the sea.

At a glance: View maps showing shark finning regulations and shark fin product bans worldwide.

The “fins-attached” method of enforcing finning bans requires that sharks be brought to land with their fins naturally attached to their bodies. This limits the number of sharks a vessel can kill because whole sharks take up more of a boat's limited storage space.

How many sharks are finned each year?

There are no official figures on shark finning. However, taking into the account the wide discrepancy between the number of sharks reported as caught and the recorded imports of shark fins into East Asia, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has estimated that tens of millions of sharks are finned every year.

Why is finning harmful?

  • If crews are not required to keep and freeze shark carcasses, they can continue catching and finning sharks (and drying just the fins on deck) long after their freezers are full. This means that sharks can be caught in totally unsustainable volumes.
  • Because they are near or at the top of the food chain, the disappearance of sharks is likely to have devastating consequences for other fish species in the chain.
  • Since it is difficult to identify a shark species by observing its severed fins, or to identify a species by observing its finless carcass alone, shark management is severely impacted by the removal of sharks’ fins at sea. 
  • Communities in developing coastal communities in Africa, Latin America and India have reported precipitous declines in sharks in their waters in recent decades believed to be caused by large foreign vessels' finning sharks only a few kilometers farther out.

Which sharks are most often used for the fin trade?

DNA studies of shark fins in trade show that blue sharks comprise about 17 percent of the total sharks used for the fin trade. Studies have found that as many as 20 million blue sharks are killed annually and that the population is in decline. Other species commonly used for shark fin soup include hammerhead, shortfin mako, silky, sandbar, bull and thresher sharks.

Is there an alternative to using real shark fins for shark fin soup?

Although various alternatives have been promoted in Asia, they have not achieved widespread popularity. The main reason is that they lack the historical cachet of shark fin soup, a dish that was once the sole preserve of emperors and that, for 2000 years, has symbolized wealth and power. The low-level acceptance of alternatives is certainly not based on a preference for the flavor of real shark fins, since they have none. Flavor is imparted to shark fin soup by the addition of chicken or fish stock.

So what will work in the consuming countries?

One really positive thing that has happened recently is that large numbers of Asian, in particular Chinese, organizations and individuals in a number of major consuming countries have picked up on this issue and have begun to wage strenuous campaigns against the consumption of shark fin soup. Once people understand how vulnerable sharks are, how much we need them and how fast they’re disappearing, attitudes can and do change. HSI is actively encouraging this trend and collaborating closely with local shark advocates.

Chinese and other Asian communities around the world have the ability to turn the tide and bring about a drastic decline in the consumption of shark fin soup. The only question is: can they do it in time?


 1 The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission have nearly identical recommendations regarding shark finning at sea. Under these rules, fins may be removed at sea but fins and carcasses must both be landed and must adhere to the 5 percent rule, at least at the first point at which they are unloaded. However, the recommendations do not make clear whether the weight ratio is based on dressed or whole sharks.

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