Target shark meat consumption, rather than shark's fin

Shark's fin soup continues to cause controversy in Singapore and in the West.

A recent article "Singapore ranked third in shark fin trade: Report" (The Straits Times, May 26, 2017) evoked this response from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore chief executive Elaine Tan: "The fact that Singapore is a significant trader means the solution to the global shark crisis lies on our shores."

Both WWF and wildlife monitoring network Traffic call on Singapore to employ more robust monitoring of trade volumes and protect the species, saying Singapore's role cannot be overlooked. The two organisations released a joint report in May that found Singapore to be the world's second-largest trader of shark's fin in terms of value.

While WWF and Traffic point the finger at Singapore for the trade in shark's fin, in fact, sharks (other than sawfish) are not classified as endangered by Cites, the United Nations (UN) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Cites classifies species into different levels of endangerment. Those in Appendix I are threatened with extinction, Appendix II are those which can be traded in limited numbers, and Appendix III species are those where individual nations require assistance with the management and protection of species under national jurisdiction.

Sharks are in Appendix II or III, which in effect means they can be caught and eaten. Hence, the high catch number globally. The UN Food and Agriculture figures show the annual global catch of sharks is 800,000 tonnes.

A restaurant that serves shark's fin in Bangkok, Thailand. The United Nations Food and Agriculture figures show the annual global catch of sharks is 800,000 tonnes. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Sharks are caught by many countries - developed and developing. Shark meat is eaten in these and other countries.

Sharks are caught in different ways - artisanal fishing, commercial bycatch and targeted shark catch. Sharks are usually caught in nets, orby hook and line fishing.

Fisheries can be small or large, commercial, artisanal or subsistence. In artisanal or subsistence fisheries - in Asean and developing countries - sharks can be a substantial component of the catch. They are consumed or sold locally, providing food and income to poor fishermen.

What some activists object to is the practice of "live finning" - the cutting of fins from a live shark. But it is a minority practice and by no means the norm in shark fishing. It is irrational, physically dangerous and totally unnecessary for fishermen to live fin. It is easier to take fins from a dead, motionless fish, which has been caught for its flesh.

There are some exceptions.

Some long-line fishing boats, principally targeting tuna, get in their fishing hooks the less valuable sharks. They cut the fins and throw the sharks into the water to make room for tuna.

But live finning is not the norm. Consider some simple facts•:

  • About 73 million sharks are caught each year. It is not possible for all of them to be live finned, as implied in some TV footage. It will require millions of fishermen to do the job.•
  • About 30 per cent of these are caught in developed countries, where live finning is not practised. •Instead, live finning is an aberration in shark fishing.

Activists should by all means insist on sustainable fishing practices and greater traceability of shark's fin products.

But do not use live finning - which is such a minority practice - as a bogeyman argument to ask consumers to reduce their desire for shark's fin.

In any case, it has long been my belief that there is a cultural dimension to the debate on shark's fin consumption.

Shark's fin is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and shark's fin soup is a sought-after dish.

But it is not demand for shark's fin that is driving up demand for sharks. Western countries and some developing countries harvest sharks, directly or incidentally, for their meat.

If they are concerned about overfishing of sharks, organisations like the WWF should be campaigning against the consumption of shark meat across the board, not just focus on the consumption of shark's fin.

So long as sharks continue to be caught for their meat, fins will be readily available. Rather than throwing them away as waste, why not let poor fishermen from developing countries sell them to shark's fin soup vendors at a good price?

When I was in Australia, the fish and chips vendor told me the fish he used was shark meat. Why don't activists launch a campaign against the use of shark meat in fish and chips?

A campaign against shark's fin to protect sharks seems misguided. It would surely be far more effective to mount a campaign to lower consumption of shark meat in Western cuisine.

  • Dr Giam Choo Hoo is an independent consultant on international wildlife conservation. He has served as president of the Singapore Veterinary Association and the Association of Veterinary Surgeons Malaysia/Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'Target shark meat consumption, rather than shark's fin'. Print Edition | Subscribe