Shark fin soup has received a lot of scorn in recent years and rightly so! The industry is responsible for an enormous proportion of the sharks which are killed globally each year, and has been implicated as a significant diver of population declines of several endangered shark species. Around the world, there are multiple NGOs, charities, animal rights groups, conservationists and scientific research groups working tirelessly to end shark finning completely. They are supported by many people in China, who refuse to eat the delicacy, and demand it be removed from menus at state dinners and other important events. But has all this amazing work meant that endangered sharks are now protected from finning? Are fins off the market in China?
Shark Fins are Sold All Over the World
Despite an enormous amount of push-back against shark fin soup in recent years, shark fins are still on sale in many places around the world. And it is not just China! Shark fins are used in medicines and for shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy amongst many Asian communities around the globe. To learn more check out It's a Small World After All.
Yet, the two largest shark fin consumption centres in the world are found in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, mainland China. Huge markets for sharks exist in these regions and fins are imported in massive numbers from all over the world (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
It is not illegal to sell shark fins in Hong kong and China. In fact, some shark fins are contributed to the market from sustainable shark fisheries (to learn more you can check out Can Shark Fishing be Sustainable?), but there are also many species of sharks which are at such serous risk of extinction that they should not be fished at all (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
The problem is that it after fins are removed from the shark and have been dried or treated in some other way, it can be very challenging to identify them. It can also be almost impossible to track where fins have come from, to determine if they have been fished ethically (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
DNA Analysis Can Identify Which Species Fins Came From
In recent years, DNA analysis has been deployed more and more regularly, as a tool to tackle this problem. "DNA barcoding" involves sequencing a portion of the genome of some tissue, to compare the code against a database of known species. As genetic material is present in every single cell in the body, DNA barcoding can be used on many kinds of tissue, including fins. Therefore, if scientists take a sample of fins for sale, they can determine very accurately what species of shark it is and whether sale of that product is restricted or illegal (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
"More than a third of the traded species exhibit high extinction risk"
- Cardeñosa et al, 2020
In one study a disgraceful proportion of fins that were tested in Guangzhou and Hong Kong were found to be from threatened species; 37.9% of species from Hong Kong markets and 41.8% from Guangzhou are classified as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This means that these sharks are seriously threatened with extinction in the wild (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
As the composition of the species found were very similar at both sites, it seems that the two markets are connected. This is not surprising, given that the two cities are only 129 km apart and connected by multiple road and railway lines. It seems likely that the fins were imported into China via Hong Kong (the common trading port) and moved into mainland China for processing in Guangdong Province, before either being sold there or transported back to Hong Kong (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
What is especially disturbing about these findings, is that the same research group published a very similar study in China two years before... and found that CITES-listed endangered shark fins were on sale at that time as well. And later studies have also shown that threatened species are still on sale in these markets. This suggests a serious, ongoing problem, that is potentially not improving. To learn more, check out Fin-Dangered (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Cardeñosa et al, 2020; Shen et al, 2024).
Endangered Species Designation Does Not Equal Protection
The problem is that listing by the IUCN, does not necessarily mean that legal action can be taken against those trading in endangered species. In this case, it falls to the Convention on the international Trade in Endangered species of Flora and Fauna (commonly known as CITES). This international agreement limits, controls and regulates the international trade of any part of a species listed with CITES. CITES-permits are required to import listed species into China, and are also necessary for transport between Hong Kong and mainland China. According to the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities, they have made significant efforts to bolster their international trade inspections, to stop illegal fins entering the country (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
If we are feeling optimistic, maybe we should assume that the stock which was sampled for the previous study had still not been sold by the time the more recent research took place. Maybe some of these restricted items were fished and imported before limitations were put in place (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
International trade in any body parts of hammerheads (Sphyrna species) and oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) have been restricted by CITES since 2014, and silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and threshers (Alopias species) were also added in 2016. It may be possible that there is a latency period between the legislation coming into place and the products being sold (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
China Needs Stricter Enforcements of the Law
However, the scientists stated that stronger law enforcement protocols are required; boosting monitoring both during import and domestic transport, and that surveillance must be put into place to supervise what species are for sale at both locations (Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
They also suggested that similar studies should be undertaken at other significant shark fin markets in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam, in order to elucidate how endangered species are being transported and traded within the region as a whole. This suggests to me, that these researchers were suspicious that CITES-listed endangered species are still being illegally imported into China (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Cardeñosa et al, 2020).
If you would like to support the anti-finning movement, you can follow NGOs, such as Shark Stewards, Stop Finning, or Fin Fighters. You can also keep an eye on Change.org, (type finning in the search bar) where you can sign petitions against shark finning. There are huge movements in the Europe recently to ban the shark fin trade, you can contribute your vote to the EU Initiative.
Cardeñosa D, Fields AT, Babcock EA, Shea SKH, Feldheim KA & Chapman DD (2020). Species composition of the largest shark fin retail-market in mainland China. Scientific Reports, 10, 12914. Access online.
Cardeñosa D, Fields AT Feldheim K, Shea SKH, Babcock EA, Zhang H, Fischer GA & Chapman DD (2018). CITES-listed sharks remain among the top species in the contemporary fin trade. Conservation Letters, 11, e12457. Access online.
Shen KLS, Cheow JJ, Cheung AB, Koh RJR, Mun AKX, Lee YN, Lim YZ, Namatame M, Peng E, Vintenbakh V, Lim EXY & Wainwright BJ (2024). DNA barcoding continues to identify endangered species of shark sold as food in a globally significant shark fin trade hub. PeerJ, 12, e16647. Access online.