There is a practice that is the subject of heated debate getting the axe from a growing number of nations, a practice called shark finning.
Shark finning is a harvesting process that is viewed as inhumane and unsustainable by animal rights and environmental groups because of the manner in which it is carried out. Often the fin is detached from the shark’s body while the animal is still alive, and the body is then thrown back into the sea, unable to properly swim. The shark then is eaten alive by other fish, or dies by suffocation on the ocean floor from its injuries.
Shark fins are consumed globally by way of the Chinese delicacy Shark Fin Soup, and their use in traditional medicines of the region. Because the rest of the shark pales in value compared to that of the fins, sharks are not usually caught whole in order to attain the prized fin. Some finning operations are rather small, and to maximize profits, only the part that catches the highest price will come aboard to stay.
The environmental impact has the potential to be devastating. It is estimated that some species have decreased in numbers by 80% over the last 50 years. Shark finning as an industry has ballooned exponentially during that time, with current values being projected at over $1 billion USD per year. There is some cause for concern in human health due to the reported high levels of mercury found in sharks. And because the practice is largely conducted with no management and no one to monitor its activities, the number of threatened species stands at 39, with little to inhibit their endangerment.
Several countries have taken measures to place strict regulations on the industry, some of which are pushing for a global ban. New Zealand has proclaimed its waters to be protective of the Great White Shark, and finning of other shark species is only allowed if the animal is already dead. Finning is prohibited in US waters and by US vessels, with shark fins being allowed for trade with the provision that the rest of the shark accompanies the fin. The US state of Hawaii has placed a total ban on possession, sale, and distribution of shark fins. The Republic of Palau created the first shark sanctuary within its waters, an area comparable to the size of France. In fact, a recent study has shown that the area’s economy experiences a boost from living sharks, due to the interest from divers. Even China, where the demand is highest, has reduced the availability of the popular Shark Fin Soup, recognizing the wasteful nature of the practice.
Whether the debate stems from morality or practicality, it cannot be argued that any species facing extinction should be let off the hook.