Restricted Supply, Tepid Demand: the New Recipe for Shark Fin Soup?

Dr. Chapman takes a DNA sample from a nearly 15-ft blunt nose six-gill shark in the Bahamas. Photo by Sean Williams, Cape Eleuthera Institute. Blog by Dr. Demian Chapman, shark geneticist and Blue Ocean Fellow: When I first started studying sharks in the mid 1990s, they were already in serious trouble and there was no reprieve in sight. The Chinese economy was booming and with this boom had grown a new middle class with an insatiable demand for luxury products. One such product was shark fin soup, a $100-a-bowl appetizer served at special events like weddings, banquets and business dinners.

Dried shark fins fetched hundreds of dollars per kilogram and fishermen who previously thought of sharks as “trash fish” set them firmly in their sights. Lacking a market for shark meat, it was not uncommon for fishermen to slice the fins from live sharks before dumping the rest of the body overboard.

Fisheries management agencies all over the world were caught flat-footed and lacked even basic information about sharks with which to develop sustainable catch limits. Even though scientists know sharks reproduce very slowly and experience only razor thin fishing mortality before the population enters a downward spiral, shark fishing in nearly every country went virtually unregulated.

As a student just getting into shark research by tagging newborn lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) in the Bahamas, I had a palpable sense that these tiny, three-foot predators I was releasing had little hope of reaching maturity 12 years later because of the demand for their fins.

It is now 2013 and I am a professor at Stony Brook University and my students and I are still studying lemon sharks in the Bahamas. The newborns I tagged in the mid 1990s are now adults and we have even seen a few of them again, each now eight-feet long and sporting big, beautiful fins that would fetch a few hundred dollars in Asia. They have kept their fins largely because the Bahamas decided in the mid-1990s to invest in shark dive tourism instead of shark fishing. In 2011 they even prohibited all shark fishing and trade entirely.

Far from being an isolated act, similar glimmers of hope are emerging for beleaguered global shark populations to provide hope that emerging regulation of shark fishing and the fin trade will reduce the catch, maybe even to sustainable levels. These include:

–Several other developing countries, such as Palau and Honduras, have banned shark fishing and trade altogether, while others have taken steps to reduce their national shark catch with the end goal of making their local fisheries more sustainable.

–Several key species including the great white (Carcharodon carcharias) and whale (Rhincodon typus) have been protected in particular countries or by regional agreements.

–In just March of this year, five species of sharks (scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), smooth hammerhead (S. zygaena), great hammerhead (S. mokarran), oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus) and porbeagle (Lamna nasus) were added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which should reduce cross-border trade in the fins of these species, and hopefully alleviate fishing pressure on them.

One great fear remains: basic economic theory predicts this drop in supply will cause prices to rise if demand for shark fin soup remains the same. This principle is what enables fisheries to remain profitable even when fish stocks decline. It also helps explains why illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horns remains profitable even after decades of trade regulation. For those of us involved in global shark conservation efforts, the question now becomes: will rising prices driven by reduced supply propel the dried shark fin trade with greater profits?

Despite a probable decline in future supply, a curious and encouraging thing is happening in Hong Kong, one of the world’s major shark fin importers and one of the gateways to the Mainland Chinese shark fin markets. Shark fin prices are dropping. Imports are dropping as well, which should, according to economic theory, have the opposite effect on prices. So what’s going on? In a recent article in the New York Times Bonnie Tsui discussed some of the possibilities, but concluded that the evidence suggests that demand for shark fin soup is waning in Hong Kong and possibly China as well. Wave after wave of public awareness campaigns, coupled with high profile media attention on the plight of sharks, appears to have tainted this culinary status symbol in the eyes of consumers.

As I plan my next expedition to the Bahamas in the spring of 2014, and after nearly two decades of studying sharks, I have a new sense of hope for their long-term survival. At the same time I think we all must remain cautious.

–We don’t yet know if demand for shark fin soup is diminishing in all of the major importing countries, including Mainland China itself, or whether this phenomenon is limited to Hong Kong.

–We don’t really know how much this vast trade needs to be reduced to enable most shark populations to recover.

–And, of course, demand for shark meat remains high in many parts of the developing world and demand for shark fin soup, or another, new shark product, could always pick up again in Asia or elsewhere.

Shark populations all over the world are in tatters after years of heavy fishing pressure. It will take decades of global scale, comprehensive management and carefully designed conservation strategies for many of them to recover.

For now, though, I think we can have a certain level of guarded optimism about the future of sharks in our oceans. Most of all, this should inspire us to push forward with the hard work needed to make these emerging conservation and trade control measures live up to their promise.

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