Shark finning—cutting off a shark’s dorsal fin for soup while discarding the rest of the animal—has become a posterchild of unsustainable fishing. Governments around the world have banned the practice. Conservation groups have launched ad campaigns to stigmatize it as a wasteful menace to dwindling shark numbers.
By some estimates, it’s working. Unfortunately, that seeming success might paradoxically be contributing to a rising death toll for sharks.
“Despite myriad regulations intended to curb shark overfishing, the total number of sharks being killed by fisheries each year is not decreasing. If anything, it’s slightly increasing,” says Darcy Bradley, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy in California.
Bradley was part of a research team that just conducted the first world-wide survey of current shark-fishing trends amid concerns that many of these charismatic ocean predators are being pushed toward extinction. Since 1970, the number of sharks and rays in the ocean have fallen by an estimated 71%.
In recent years, a crackdown on finning has been the primary strategy to curb overfishing for sharks. Fins are sought chiefly as the key ingredient in shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia, where demand skyrocketed as China’s economy produced a new class of wealthy elites. In the last two decades, finning has gone from being largely unregulated to restricted or banned by nearly 70% of ocean fishing regulators around the world.
Meanwhile, vessels pursuing deep-ocean fish such as tuna have reduced their haul of sharks, thanks to pressure to earn certification for sustainable fishing and to limits on catching sharks by the councils that regulate open-ocean tuna fishing.
By some measures, that has worked. Shark deaths on the high seas, far from land, fell by more than 7% between 2012 and 2019, Bradley and her collaborators reported last week in the journal Science.
But that turned out to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise alarming outlook. As the scientists compiled fish-catch estimates from fisheries managers across the globe and plugged the data into models built to give a more complete view of what’s happening, the emerging picture is that more sharks died at the end of the 2010s than near the beginning. The numbers rose by nearly 4% over those years, from an estimated 76 million in 2012 to more than 80 million in 2019.
“Widespread legislation designed to prevent shark finning was successful in addressing this wasteful practice, but did not reduce mortality overall,” said lead author Boris Worm, a researcher at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
In fact, it might have made the problem worse. When the scientists interviewed nearly two dozen experts to make sense of the numbers, one message they heard is that finning bans had prompted fishers to keep the entire shark. That “resulted in new markets for shark meat, oil, and other products in countries that didn’t consume shark meat previously,” one expert from a nongovernmental organization told the researchers.
“We have seen the demand for shark fins decreasing and the demand for shark meat increasing, with Brazil and Italy being the main consumers,” said Brazilian shark biologist Leonardo Feitosa, an author on the paper who is now a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Add this to the pantheon of unintended consequences from conservation efforts.
The trend means it could take even more draconian measures to save these fish. When the researchers compared trends in shark catches with a variety of factors, two variables appeared connected to decreasing deaths: all-out bans on catching sharks, and governments that scored high on “good governance” ratings from the World Bank.
“Complete bans on shark fishing, through protective measures such as shark sanctuaries can be successful,” said the Nature Conservancy’s Bradley.
Much of that will come down to the willingness of individual countries to prioritize sharks. Around 95% of shark deaths tied to fishing happen on coastal fisheries, where nations by and large set their own rules.
A few countries have given shark conservation top billing. The researchers point to marine sanctuaries in the Maldives and Bahamas as places where fishing bans have helped sustain shark numbers and lure scuba-diving tourists.
But those aren’t the shark-fishing hotspots. Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia account for nearly 30% of the global catch, the scientists reported, followed by Brazil, Mexico and Mauritania with between 8% and 5% each of the haul.
Wealthy countries also made their way onto the top 10 list. The U.S. was in eighth place with 3% of the total catch, followed closely by New Zealand and France.
Nevertheless, some of the biggest regulatory challenges could be in countries where government accountability is relatively low and poverty is high. Just as with the mixed record of bans on the sale of meat from wild jungle animals, the burden of limits—and resistance to their enforcement—could come from people where shark fishing is their means of eking out a living.
Nidhi D’Costa, a Dalhousie shark researcher involved in the work, said past conservation efforts have been hindered by a lack of community-level work. “This is especially crucial in countries where small-scale artisanal fisheries are a major driver of shark mortality.”
Worm, et. al. “Global shark fishing mortality still rising despite widespread regulatory change.” Science, Jan. 11, 2024.
Image: By José Antonio Gil Martínez – originally posted to Flickr as Marrajos, CC BY 2.0,