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Sharks and rays have experienced dramatic population declines over the recent decades. Habitat degradation, climate change and pollution have all played their part, but by far the most damaging human activity is overfishing. It is estimated that between 72 and 273 million sharks are killed every year globally. Whilst not all of these sharks are fished for their fins (as there is also a big market for their meat, liver oils, cartilage, teeth and jaws), the value of shark fins on the global market is still a significant driver of shark declines. Now that we know sharks are being fished unsustainably for their fins, measures are being taken to protect endangered species, but is it enough? Are sharks fins no longer traded illegally on the global market?

Hundreds of shark fins in a warehouse in Hong Kong (Image Credit: xmacex / WikimediaCommons)

How the Trade in Shark Products is Controlled

The 'Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora', more commonly known as CITES, is a cooperative framework agreed upon by 186 nations. The goal is to control the international trade of over-exploited species (Vincent et al, 2014).

Every three years, threatened species are assessed and (by popular vote amongst the nations) assigned to two appendices; CITES Appendix II and Appendix I (Vincent et al, 2014; Fowler et al, 2021).

Species listed on Appendix II are only allowed to be traded internationally under permission from a permit, which ensures they are only extracted sustainably. Trade of any body part of species listed on Appendix I is completely prohibited (Vincent et al, 2014; Fowler et al, 2021).

However, listing of a species by CITES does not necessarily mean that these animals are not still harvested in large numbers. Sharks can still be fished, but the movement and trade of their products is controlled (Vincent et al, 2014; Fowler et al, 2021).

Critically Endangered scalloped hammerheads are listed on CITES Appendix II (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Where Are Shark Fins Consumed?

Shark fins are traded all over the world, with communities in many countries enjoying shark fin soup. To learn more, check out It's a Small World After All. Yet, China remains the largest consumer of shark fins globally. An enormous trade hub in Hong Kong imports millions of tonnes of shark fins annually - 5,528,862 kg of shark fins were moved through this port in 2015 alone! These fins are imported from all over the world; from Asia, Central America, Australia and Europe (Vincent et al, 2014; Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Fields et al, 2018; Fowler et al, 2021).

CITES-Listed Fins

The problem with shark fins is that, when they are cut away from the shark and/or dried and treated, it is almost impossible to identify by sight what the species is. This means it is challenging to control the trade in products from threatened species (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).

However, now we have DNA testing, which can be used to identify which specific species shark fins have come from. This has allowed us to discern that a wide variety of different sharks are for sale in Hong Kong markets (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Fields et al, 2018).

When they are separate from the body it is very difficult to identify if fins have come from a protected species (Image Credit: Galgehu mvYafiko / WikimediaCommons)

But what is alarming is that several studies have discovered that many protected species are commonly on sale in Hong Kong. As many as 1/3 of the fins sampled have been found to have come from threatened species that are listed on CITES (Cardenosa et al, 2020; Fields et al, 2018; Shen et al, 2024).

Year to year, some of the fins most consistently found are from Vulnerable silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) which have been listed since 2015, and Critically Endangered scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) and Vulnerable smooth hammerheads (Sphyrna zygaena), both of which have been listed on CITES Appendix II since 2013 (Cardeñosa et al, 2018). To learn more check out C'est Fini.

Therefore, it seems likely that many products from CITES-listed species still enter Hong Kong frequently and in large quantities (Cardeñosa et al, 2018; Cardenosa et al, 2020; Fields et al, 2018; Shen et al, 2024).

As they are flagged as Vulnerable to extinction, the trade in products from silky sharks is controlled by listing on CITES Appendix II, yet their fins can still be found for sale in Hong Kong (Image Credit: Joi Ito / WikimediaCommons)

Fins and Fiction

Many nations which were known to previously export CITES-listed shark species, are not amongst those to formally report their trade on the Hong Kong market. Therefore, the scientists conducting these studies are suspicious that some nations many not be complying with the CITES reporting requirements; by simply pretending that they are not trading in CITES-listed species (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).

The burden of monitoring and implementing CITES recommendations falls on the exporting country, but nations which import large amounts of shark products also have a responsibility to ensure regulations are enforced. As of 2016, the trade hub in Hong Kong had a grand total of just 84 officials identifying and enforcing CITES regulations... for 5,000 metric tonnes annually imported (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).

China has invested in improving inspection capacity in Hong Kong because If CITES regulations cannot be adhered to, Hong Kong could face international trade sanctions (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).

It is vital that the system be improved. Experts suggest that by employing additional inspectors, improving efficiency by centralising ports of entry for fins, conducting real-time DNA testing in the field, and targeting shipments from certain countries (which might pose a higher risk based upon recent historical landings) could be the solution. If these strategies could make it more difficult to import illegal fins, the threat of seizures at the border could promote sustainable sourcing of shark fins (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).


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.

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. 

Fields AT, Fischer GA, Shea SK, Zhang H, Abercrombie DL, Feldheim KA, Babcock EA & Chapman DD (2018). Species composition of the international shark fin trade assessed through a retail‐market survey in Hong Kong. Conservation biology, 32:2, 376-389. Access online.

Fowler S, Bräutigam A, Okes N & Sant G (2021). Conservation, fisheries, trade and management status of CITES-listed sharks. 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.

Vincent AC, Sadovy de Mitcheson YJ, Fowler SL & Lieberman S (2014). The role of CITES in the conservation of marine fishes subject to international trade. Fish and Fisheries, 15:4, 563-592. Access online.

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