ECOSYSTEM - Worldwide, eleven thousand (11,000) sharks will be killed within the next 60 minutes. That’s 180 sharks per minute; it’s a bloody affair.
One hundred million (100,000,000) are killed per year, mostly for shark fin soup. In fact, the shark-fin trade is responsible for 75% of sharks killed each year even though more than 50 countries have some kind of shark finning ban in effect.
Nevertheless, stealthy fishing techniques are used to clandestinely hook and de-fin sharks. This illicit practice of Chinese trawlers has been exposed by two separate investigations of massive illegal shark-finning operations, which are discussed in more detail herein.
According to the IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) Fishing Index, China is ranked as the world’s worst abuser of sea laws, especially shark finning, a bloody mutilation for a delicacy in China.
China’s fleet of 17,000 fishing vessels is the largest in the world. This compares to 250-to-300 total vessels for both the United States and the EU. China’s distant-water fleet numbers 3,000 ships. Enormous refrigerated vessels referred to as “Motherships” upload the catch of the Chinese fleet, thus allowing an entire fleet of trawlers to fish 24/7 without returning to port for weeks or even months.
Sharks are central to maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. Without sharks, lower prey spiral out of control, leading to collapse of marine ecosystems. Sorrowfully, based upon rate of kill, collapse of the ecosystem is on the horizon. Shark finning is out of control, mostly illegal, inhumane, and disgustingly immoral, actually worse than disgusting, whatever that is?
So, who cares? After all, Jaws (1975) put on a pretty good display of the dangers of a very, very big threatening shark with fierce jagged teeth. It instilled fear that lingers to this day. However, that 25-foot mechanical shark named “Bruce” has a docile ring to it. Aside from Bruce’s reign of celluloid terror, the odds of getting chomped to pieces by a shark are extremely low at 1-in-3,734,067 or much less than getting hit by lightning.
On the other hand, the odds of a human killing a shark are extremely high. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Switz.), overfishing has led to a 71% decline in shark species since the 1970s.
Sharks, a permanent feature of the planet, have lived on Earth for 450 million years. Now 70% have been wiped-out in only 50 years, as 450 million years of heritage is gone in a hundred-millionth fraction of 450M/yrs. Poof!
According to a prominent article in Nature: “Oceanic shark catch rates have increased threefold since 1970… We document an alarming, ongoing, worldwide decline in oceanic shark populations across the world’s largest ecosystem over the past half-century, resulting in an unprecedented increase in the risk of extinction of these species.” (Source: N. Pacoureau, et al, Half a Century of Global Decline in Oceanic Sharks and Rays, Nature, Jan. 27, 2022)
Moreover, according to the article: “The low reproductive output of these slow-growing species is clearly no match for the intense fishing pressure that they are currently under.”
Demand for Shark Fins
According to the World Wildlife Foundation: “The growing trade in shark fins – often used to make an expensive Asian soup – has become a serious threat to many shark species. The latest research suggests that around 100 million sharks may be killed annually, often targeted for fins. This practice affects many different shark species, including whale sharks (40,000 lbs. and 20-40 feet long)… Overfishing happens because of huge demand, mainly for shark fins, but also some species such as spiny dogfish and porbeagle are targeted for meat.”
Mongabay, which is one of the world’s premier conservation web portals, recently published an exposé on shark finning, to wit: Exclusive: Shark Finning Rampant Across Chinese Tuna Firm’s Fleet, Mongabay, Nov. 1, 2022.
The article is a stomach-churning story that deserves worldwide exposure. Mongabay conducted extensive investigations via interviews of dozens of crewmembers of Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), which is partially state-owned and known as China’s biggest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan.
“But DOF’s boats have also been the nexus of a massive illegal shark finning operation, an investigation by Mongabay has found, based on interviews with dozens of men who worked as deckhands throughout its fleet of some 35 longline vessels.” (Source: Philip Jacobson and Basten Gokkon, Exclusive: Shark Finning Rampant Across Chinese Firm’s Fleet, Mongabay, Nov, 1, 2022)
“Sharks are terrifying in their power,” according to an eye-witness crewmember, “Sometimes we needed three or four people, one with a spear, one with a hand-hook, and one with a stunner.”
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)/London, which also investigates the fishing industry, provided Mongabay with additional excerpts of interviews separately conducted with 11 crewmembers of six of DOFs boats, exposing the highly secretive shark finning operations.
“I was quite dumbstruck by the level of abuse that we found,” EJF CEO Steve Trent told Mongabay. Shark finning and other illegal fishing practices, he said, appear to be “running throughout and across the Chinese distant-water fleet. It’s not just a rogue element within it… DOF uses banned gear to deliberately catch and cut the fins off huge numbers of sharks in international waters, Mongabay has found,” Ibid.
Longliner commercial fishing techniques involve thousands of baited hooks dragged through the sea to capture tuna and other fish. As reported by crewmembers, DOF utilized shark lines and extra-strong wire leaders, which are banned in the western Pacific, alongside regular longlines. In other words, regular longliners added illegal shark fishing gear with much stronger leaders/hooks at a different depth on the same network. This is blatantly illegal.
On a normal longliner the hooks hang several dozen meters below the surface, where tuna tend to swim. In contrast, shark lines run directly from the buoys and floatlines, ensuring the hooks dangle just a few meters deep. “It’s all about where the baited hooks are located in terms of the depth, because sharks tend to be found in higher concentrations in the upper part of the water column,’ said Chapman, the shark expert.” (Mongabay)
According to Mongabay: “DOF’s captains presided over the finning of all manner of shark species in disregard of rules set by treaty organizations governing high-seas tuna fisheries and international wildlife trade… Photos smuggled off one vessel, the Long Xing 629, show large quantities of detached shark fins strewn across the deck.”
Officialdom of China’s agricultural ministry refused to comment on Mongabay’s article. Paradoxically, China explicitly banned shark finning as well as deliberate catching of sharks on the open seas in January 2019. However, there is no enforcement to speak of as partially state-owned vessels continue to run rampant with finning operations in clear violation of their own laws. Astonishingly, DOF is the recipient of millions of government annual subsidies for fishing operations. This entire enterprise is rotten-to-the-core.
“Almost every DOF deckhand interviewed by Mongabay and the EJF said their boat had transshipped shark fin with other boats in violation of rules adopted by the WCPFC (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) and the equivalent organization in the Atlantic, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.” (Mongabay)
Transshipping avoids risks of inspectors finding contraband. It’s typically done under cover of darkness. For example, based upon testimony by deckhands, along the Shandong coast (an eastern coastal province of China), two DOF boats transferred 30-50 sacks of dried fin onto a third smaller vessel, which looked like a local fishing boat. The tell-all witnesses reported being awakened after midnight and ordered to carry the sacks to the moonlit boat. The two DOF captains boarded the third boat for delivery of fins, returning a day later. The approximate two metric tons of dried fin carries a black market value of $300,000-$400,000.
Shark-less Ecosystem Stress
Sharks are crucial to maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. The marine food chain will collapse without sharks at the pinnacle. “Fish-hunting sharks weed out weak and sick individuals, ensuring that the fish population remains healthy and at a size that the habitat's resources can support… If the sharks disappear, the smaller fish explode in population because nothing's eating them,’ Daly-Engel told Live Science. ‘Soon, their food — plankton, microorganisms, shrimp — all of that is gone… fish ultimately starve." (Source: Want if There Were No Sharks? LiveScience, Sept. 9, 2020)
Deep-sea sharks regulate the amount of carbon that drifts up to the atmosphere by eating/scavenging dead animals on the bottom of the ocean. It’s estimated they remove up to ½ of manufactured carbon to the atmosphere. (Source: Why do We Need Sharks for Our Ecosystem? Oceans-Research, September 20, 2021)
Medicinal research is being conducted on sharks as shark tissue is a strong anticoagulant and antibacterial that may become a key to new medicines.
One of the main problems with overfishing is that sharks grow slowly, taking years to fully mature, and they reproduce few young. Females reproduce once in two-to-three years. Reproduction can’t come close to keeping up with overfishing, especially illegal finning, which decimates regional populations.
Illegal shark fishing, especially finning, is threatening collapse of marine ecosystems. Of special concern, it is already happening much faster than authorities can keep up or regulate. And, regulation is tacky and thin and practically nonexistent as Official China hides behind the dirty work of shady ship captains.
(Robert Hunziker, MA, economic history DePaul University, awarded membership in Pi Gamma Mu International Academic Honor Society in Social Sciences is a freelance writer and environmental journalist who has over 200 published articles appearing in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide.)