In 2013, the environmental group WildAid reported that demand for shark fin soup in China had dropped by 50 to 70 percent, offering some hope for the estimated 25% of species of sharks and their relatives, that are threatened with extinction. Many experts thought those numbers sounded too good to be true.
A new analysis of worldwide customs and trade data published in the journal Biological Conservation confirms that shark-fin trade has dropped by approximately 25 percent over the last decade “Although we can’t say that we fully understand the scale or the cause of the shark fin trade decline in China, it seems safe to conclude that demand for fins is waning, and that sounds like good news for sharks,” says global shark fin trade expert Shelley Clarke, a co-author on this study.
This new analysis has been welcomed by other global shark conservation experts, including Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International. “Once again, Dr. Clarke has provided us with objective, expert analyses that are vital for evaluating the progress in shark conservation and guiding our next steps,” Fordham said. “The paper provides an important reminder that effectively safeguarding sharks is a complex and long-term endeavor, requiring perseverance and regular re-evaluation of priorities.”
Many possible explanations have been proposed for the decline in shark fin demand. Clarke believes that conservation advocacy and public education efforts have contributed. Since the global recession of 2009 the Chinese government has waged a campaign against shark fin and other conspicuous consumption products. “Also, some researchers in Beijing have suggested that there is a declining preference for shark fin because it is considered unhealthy or passé, or that the product is not real,” Clarke says. “People believe that the real fins must be in short supply because of the publicized decline of shark populations.”
This study shows that one major threat to sharks is declining, but Clarke warns that many other threats remain. “Most conservation campaigns target shark fins rather than meat, and shark meat consumption is growing at a fast pace.” She says. “There is really no such thing as a ‘shark fin fishery,” sharks are caught for a variety of reasons including for their meat, or inadvertently when trying to catch other species.”
Although the total volume of shark fin traded is declining, more than 70 countries now participate in the trade, with more joining every year. Based on analysis of African countries,” Clarke says, “the supply network for shark fin is expanding to include more and more countries over time. This may be because source supplies are become scarcer, or because management is curtailing supplies in some countries, or it could simply be that logistics for shipping to Hong Kong are improving.” This complicates both monitoring and enforcement efforts, as different countries have different customs import and export codes, and many countries in the developing world don’t have enforcement infrastructure.
This study compared the global trade in shark fins to trade in sea cucumbers, and found that the news isn’t universally good for conspicuous consumption products based on threatened sea life.. Around 70 sea cucumber species are traded internationally to be used in traditional luxury cuisines, and many are endangered. Although sea cucumber overexploitation doesn’t get the same attention as shark finning, these invertebrates are the second most valuable seafood export in the Pacific after tuna, according to lead author Hampus Eriksson of the international nonprofit research organization WorldFish. “While a range of factors may have contributed to a decline in traded and consumed shark fins, the same factors do not appear to have constrained the trade with sea cucumbers,” Eriksson says. Significant progress has been made, but marine conservation advocates still have plenty to do.