Busting shark's fin sustainability myths

Until the shark trade is better monitored, it is still best to say 'no' to shark products

Dried sharks' fins on sale in Singapore. A report released last month found the Republic to be the world's second-largest trader of shark's fin in terms of value. Sharks' fins drying on the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong. The lack of traceab
Sharks' fins drying on the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong. The lack of traceability systems to track shark's fin as it is traded across borders often means that information about source and the types and numbers of sharks being caught gets muddled and even lost. This leads to overfishing, which also affects other marine life and the overall health of our oceans. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What do Jackie Chan and basketball legend Yao Ming have in common with thousands of people in Singapore? All have spoken out against consuming shark's fin.

An increasing number of people here have stopped eating it altogether. In the past three weeks alone, 3,000 pledged to say "no" to shark's fin on the WWF-Singapore website.

But the dish continues to be an emotional and divisive issue. This is why a recent debate that emerged on the issue has been so significant.

Last month, WWF released a report, together with wildlife-trade monitoring network Traffic, that found Singapore to be the world's second-largest trader of shark's fin in terms of value. Even as thousands voiced their support to stop the consumption of shark's fin in Singapore, local businesses have chimed in with their views too.

Mr Yio Jin Xian from the Marine and Land Products Association (MPA), which represents shark's fin traders supplying 70 per cent of the market in Singapore, followed up on the report with claims that most shark products in Singapore are "sustainable".

This statement was based on the following claims:

•Majority of the shark's fin imported by Singapore is from developed countries such as the United States, European Union nations and Australia.

Dried sharks' fins on sale in Singapore. A report released last month found the Republic to be the world's second-largest trader of shark's fin in terms of value. PHOTO: BOON PEI YA

•Fins from sharks caught in federally regulated waters from these developed countries are "sustainable".

•It is more sustainable when the whole shark carcass is utilised, not just the fins.

It is important that we get our facts right on an issue that so many Singaporeans care about and have taken action on. Nine out of 10 people here care about sharks going extinct; eight out of 10 have stopped consuming shark's fin over the past year. Yet, a significant group of people still view shark's fin as a part of their culture and tradition.

This is also an issue with global implications. Sharks are an important source of livelihood for many coastal communities. Demand for shark's fin is draining the oceans of these key predators, which impacts the marine environment, a major food source for us.

Is there truly such a thing as shark's fin from sustainable sources?


Myth 1: "Majority of the shark's fin imported by Singapore is from developed countries such as the US, EU nations and Australia."

You cannot know what is sustainable if you do not know where it comes from. This is especially true in the shark trade.

Singapore's shark's fin traders at the MPA claim that most of our fins are from developed countries like the US, EU nations and Australia. Current import data contradicts these claims completely.

  • WWF-Singapore

  • Ms Elaine Tan has been the chief executive of WWF- Singapore (World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore) for the past six years.

    It is the Singapore branch of the world's largest conservation organisation, which has offices in about 100 countries.

    Since she joined, it has grown its supporter and donor base to more than 90,000, and has established itself as the go-to international non-governmental organisation on conservation and the environment.

    Against a backdrop of complex environmental challenges and increased pressure on natural resources, WWF-Singapore works with stakeholders such as the Government, corporations and communities to build a more sustainable future for Singapore.

    In her larger remit to WWF globally, Ms Tan is a board member of Earth Hour Global (the world's largest ground-up movement for the environment) and a member of the senior executive team of WWF's Asia-Pacific regional growth and strategy group, which oversees conservation funding for 20 offices across the region.

    With a 25-year career in strategic communications and leadership management, Ms Tan joined WWF in 2011 with experience in the NGO space spanning seven years.

    Her achievements include successes with international humanitarian organisation World Vision, where she led fund raising, corporate marketing and communications, and was responsible for the significant financial and donor growth of its Singapore office from 2004 to 2009.

    Before moving to NGOs, she had over a decade of senior management and corporate communications experience in the public sector.

According to Singapore's trade statistics, Spain, Namibia, Uruguay, Hong Kong and Indonesia are listed as the top markets from which Singapore imports shark's fin. With the exception of Hong Kong, which trades shark's fin caught elsewhere, these are all source countries with no known sustainable shark fisheries.

Using Indonesia as an example, environmental groups monitoring the fishing industry estimate that in certain fish markets, two out of 10 sharks brought to shore are species threatened with extinction.

More importantly, there is no traceability system in place today - in Singapore or anywhere in the world - that can adequately track individual shark's fins from source to seller. This means that businesses that claim to know the source countries of their shark's fin do not have the means to verify their claims.


Myth 2: "Fins from sharks caught in federally regulated waters from developed countries are 'sustainable'."

While certain countries like the US and Australia have been more progressive with regulating shark fishing in their waters, this does not mean that all shark products from these countries are sustainable. While having laws in place help govern general fishing practices in a country, not all fisheries are the same. In reality, regulating the types of species caught and preventing overfishing remains a challenge.

Independent third-party certification of a fishery is the only way that we, as consumers, can be sure that fisheries do not engage in unsustainable practices. These certification bodies, notably the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), monitor each fishery on an operational level, to ensure that it is run and managed responsibly.

Only one shark fishery in the world has been certified sustainable by MSC - for spiny dogfish in the US. It is worth noting that, in this fishery, the shark species is mainly caught for its meat, with fins being a low-value by-product.

Apart from this fishery, no other shark fisheries have been certified sustainable by MSC.


Myth 3: "It is more sustainable when the whole shark carcass is utilised, not just the fins."

There is no doubt that shark finning - where carcasses are thrown back into the sea - is a wasteful and senseless practice.

More countries now discourage these practices by having regulations that require the whole shark to be brought to land. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this alone makes a fishery "sustainable".

A few things go into determining what is sustainable: healthy populations of a species, management measures to prevent overfishing, and the impact of fishing on the environment. Applying the above criteria to shark fishing, it becomes clear why current practices do not meet our sustainability standards.

First, shark populations are on the decline as a result of overexploitation. Over 70 million sharks are removed from our oceans every year - equivalent to about 8,000 sharks every hour. Shark populations are being razed to extinction with such immense demand. This impacts coastal communities too. Shark fishermen talk of how they used to be able to catch sharks close to home, but now have to travel farther afield to catch enough sharks.

Unsustainable shark fisheries may also use non-selective fishing gear, often with terrible consequences for non-target species.

This endangers populations of protected sharks, dolphins and turtles. As sharks play a major role in maintaining ocean ecosystems, removing them from the oceans will have a knock-on effect on the health of our oceans and marine life, a major food source for us all.


The shark crisis is a problem we all share. With at least 68 countries and territories involved in the trade through Singapore alone, the complexity of this global trade is staggering.

As fins trade hands across countries, information about the source, type of sharks and the numbers fished gets muddled and even lost. What is legal cannot be separated from the illegal, nor the sustainable from the unsustainable.

As a result, we continue to catch, trade and consume tens of millions of sharks every year, including endangered species that are protected.

It is time to come together and put a stop to this. A solution and way forward exists, but it requires everyone to work together - from governments to businesses, and people like you and me.

On an international level, we need traceability systems that can track the movement of shark's fin and its products across the world.

This is where places like Hong Kong and Singapore - the world's top shark's fin traders - come in.

Both are key transit hubs for shark's fin products.

In these ports, Customs procedures need to be in place that can allow better tracking of species and actual trade volumes of shark's fin. Hong Kong is already in the process of integrating such procedures, while Singapore still has some way to go. To their credit, Customs officials in Hong Kong have busted some major illegal shipments of shark's fin in recent months.

With better monitoring of the global shark trade through these measures, businesses - including Singapore's shark's fin traders - can have more confidence about the source of their products, including basic information on species and legality.

Will we ever be able to fish sharks sustainably? Yes, but in the near future, the volume of sustainable products will still be a tiny fraction of the global demand. Until shark fisheries can prove that they can be sustainably managed and can track their products to end consumers, the only way to protect our oceans is to greatly reduce our demand.

From the Chinese government banning the dish from being served at official functions, to the US state of California advocating a complete ban on this product, momentum to address this issue continues to build around the world.

Right now, the solution does not lie with the fishermen, or even outside our borders. It lies in making a drastic reduction in the rate we are consuming shark's fin and shark products. With each and every consumer making the individual choice of saying "no" to shark's fin, we can hopefully work together to turn the tide for sharks and, in doing so, ensure healthier oceans.

3,000Number of people who have pledged to say "no" to shark's fin in the past three weeks alone. 70mNumber of sharks removed from our oceans every year - equivalent to about 8,000 sharks every hour.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline Busting shark's fin sustainability myths. Subscribe