It is no secret that there is a worldwide extinction crisis plaguing the world’s sharks, and this crisis is fueled primarily by anthropogenic sources. In addition to overfishing, pollution, and climate change, shark finning remains the critical factor in plummeting shark populations. It is currently predicted that 28 percent of shark species will go extinct within a decade or two, and up to 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins. At current levels, shark reproduction cannot keep up with the number of deaths to meet the demand for shark fin soup.
The loss of apex predators can have disastrous ecological effects on ocean ecosystems worldwide. With fewer sharks to eat them, octopuses and rays can feast on lobster and scallops, triggering collapses of those fisheries. A recent study from the Australian Institute of Marine Science of reefs along Australia’s northwest coast suggests shark declines can also trigger coral loss: When sharks are absent, mid-level predators such as snappers increase, while herbivores such as parrotfish decrease. Parrotfish eat the algae that would otherwise overwhelm young corals on reefs recovering from natural disturbances.
While the situation is extremely dire, anti-shark-finning campaigns are gaining traction and building awareness of the damage both nationally and internationally. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jingping—in a bid to cut lavish spending and to spread environmental awareness—banned shark fin soup in official government banquets. Subsequently, sales of shark fins fell by 50 to 70 percent in China, with many polled respondents citing the ban as the key motivator. The dish is also losing popularity in the United States, as state bans on shark fins become more common.
In June, four populations of scalloped hammerhead sharks were listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. And effective September 14, 2014, international trade in oceanic whitetip sharks, three hammerhead shark species (scalloped, great, and smooth), porbeagle sharks, and manta rays will be controlled, per their 2013 listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
AWI continues to push for shark conservation among government agencies and state legislatures, build consumer awareness, and encourage restaurants, other companies, and airlines to stop serving, offering for sale, or transporting shark fins. For more information and to find out what you can do to help, see www.awionline.org/sharkfinning.