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What is Shark Finning?

Millions of sharks lose their lives each year at the hands of fishermen in search of their fins. What is shark finning, and why is it damaging to ecosystems?

Fins from as many as 73 million sharks end up in the global shark-fin trade every year. Shark finning – a wasteful and inhumane practice – is one of the greatest threats facing sharks today.

Researchers in 2013 estimated that between 63 and 273 million sharks die every year at the hands of fishermen and shark-finning operations. Some sharks reach sexual maturity late, grow slowly, and produce few offspring. This makes replenishing populations affected by unsustainable fishing and finning difficult. Scientists estimate that we kill sharks, on average, 30 percent faster than they can rebuild their populations.

Oceana, is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. It works on a variety of issues, ranging from offshore oil drilling to seafood fraud. When it comes to sharks, Oceana is committed to putting an end to the shark fin trade, reducing bycatch, and protecting vulnerable species and marine habitats.

What is shark finning?

Shark finning is the practice of cutting off a sharks’ fins at the surface and discarding its body at sea by throwing the still-live animal overboard. The practice is illegal in U.S. waters. Managed fisheries in this country require that sharks are landed at port with their fins attached. Foreign fisheries, however, target many more animals in this brutal practice. Victims suffer a slow death – often bleeding out, being eaten alive by other fish, or even drowning because they can no longer swim to move water through their gills.

The Asian market for shark-fin soup is the primary driver of demand for shark fins. Traders boil and dry the fins, then bleach them using hydrogen peroxide or Sulphur. They are most commonly prepared in chicken stock.

Hong Kong is the largest trader of shark fins, though in recent years the trade has shifted to Guangzhou, a city north of Hong Kong. Of the 14 most popular species in the fin trade here, more than 70 percent face possible extinction. Despite evidence of a downturn in the shark-fin trade in Hong Kong and a possible decline in appetite for fins, the demand and price for shark fins remains high.

Why are sharks vital for ocean ecosystems?

Sharks are hard at work in their environments. As predators, they help keep the ecosystem balanced. They are often the sole predators of certain marine reptiles, marine mammals, seabirds and other sharks.

It’s clear that sharks positively impact ecosystems in their roles as predators, but their presence can also indirectly influence the distribution of other animals. This too has important ecological consequences. For instance, tiger sharks in Australian waters are partly responsible for the health of seagrass beds by keeping plant-eating species like dugongs in check. In turn, healthier seagrass beds help the ocean recycle carbon and, ultimately, help regulate climate change.

Coral reefs, a diver favorite around the world, also reap benefits from sharks. Some species cycle nutrients via their waste, remove invasive species, and clean up the reef by scavenging. With help from sharks, reefs can remain vibrant and full of biodiversity.

What does shark finning mean for divers?

Seeing a shark while diving is a great experience. In fact, a survey of U.S. scuba divers found that sharks topped the list of species they wanted to see on a dive. The survey found that divers would be willing to pay an average of $35 extra per dive to see sharks. But unfortunately, divers can expect to see fewer and fewer sharks if conservation measures aren’t taken.

This has important consequences for those working on the water. Scuba instructors, guides, divemasters and other professionals benefit greatly from shark tourism. Tourists spend an estimated $314 million on global shark tourism every year. In the Bahamas alone, sharks and rays generate $113.8 million USD annually for the economy, most of which is from shark diving.

What can we do?

Fortunately, the U.S. has already made shark finning illegal in our waters. However, shark fins are still being imported to and exported from the U.S. Once a fin enters our market, we cannot tell if it came from a legally caught shark or from a finned shark, threatened with extinction. The U.S. also continues to import shark fins from countries that do not have regulations against shark finning, thereby indirectly supporting the fin trade by allowing the import of these products.

If divers want to continue having shark sightings, and if those in the shark-diving sector wish to continue enjoying the economic benefits, we must protect sharks and end the fin trade entirely.

Oceana recognizes sharks’ ecological and economic importance and believes Congress should ban the buying and selling of shark fins. Eleven U.S. states and several companies including Amazon, GrubHub, many hotels and major airlines, Hong Kong Disneyland and multiple shipping companies have already banned the sale of shark fins in a commitment to conservation. So, let’s work together to keep shark sightings plentiful, and fins out of soup bowls.

If you love sharks and want to help keep them healthy and alive in our oceans, please call your member of Congress and tell them to support the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act. You can also visit Oceana’s website and sign the petition telling Congress to ban the buying and selling of shark fins.

Guest post by Lora Snyder, campaign director, Oceana

Oceana is the world’s largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans.