Ever since Steven Spielberg’s on screen illustration of a great white shark terrorizing a touristy beach town in the epic thriller “JAWS,” people have been afraid to swim in the ocean.
Throughout the years, human “fear and fascination” has grown surrounding the topic of sharks. To add to the lure of sharks, for the past 22 years, the Discovery Channel has hosted a yearly weeklong event called “Shark Week” that explores some of humans’ uneasiness about the species. In 2008, there were 59 reported cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans that occurred in the shark’s natural habitat without any human prompting. Further, of those 59 attacks, only four fatalities occurred. Researchers indicate that, according to these figures, humans are 15 times more likely to fall victim to a falling coconut than to death by shark bite. In comparison, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed annually by humans through a gruesome activity called “shark fining.” This proves that sharks should be more afraid of us then we should be afraid of them. Before proposing a possible international solution to this activity, importance lies in understanding what shark fining is, why it is occurring, and what laws are currently in place as a safeguard for sharks.
I. What is Shark Finning and Why Does it Occur?
The activity called shark finning is one of the leading causes of deaths within the shark population around the world. Shark finning involves the fin being physically removed from the body of the shark; the fin is kept on board and the body is thrown back into the sea, usually occurring while the shark is still alive. Without a fin, the shark is unable to swim and either sinks to the bottom and drowns or is eaten by other predators while still alive. Generally, sharks of all ages, sexes, sizes, and species are at risk of being captured and murdered. Most countries do not utilize shark meat in their diet because the quality is ordinarily inferior to that of tuna. The director of WildAid International explained "[t]he fin is one of the most expensive pound-for-pound item from the sea. And the beauty about the fin is that it's very compact ... it doesn't take up your hull and you can make a lot of money from it." Because the only portion of the shark that is economically valuable to a fisherman is the actual fin, it makes more sense in terms of the capacity on board to discard the remainder of the shark and save the fin. Not only is shark finning cruel, but also utilizing such a small portion of the shark is inherently wasteful.
The practice of shark finning occurs mainly to generate shark fin soup. For many cultures, especially the Chinese, this soup has been considered a delicacy for over 2200 years. Traditionally, only those who were extremely wealthy consumed shark fin soup. However, now the soup is used at most weddings and as a status symbol in the rising middle class. Sharks are being negatively affected by an intermingling of “Asian culinary tradition [and] Western-style consumerism.” With the number of sharks killed each year continuing to rise, the supply will eventually diminish. As a result, the demand as well as the price of an already expensive dish will continue to rise. Presently, a bowl of shark fin soup can sell for anywhere ranging from $100 to $700, depending on the quality of soup. A large shark fin, like that from a great white shark, could sell at prices close to $10,000.
Shark fins have become “one of the most expensive fish products in the world,” but the high price does not correlate with the lack of benefits in shark meat. The unusual aspect of the actual shark fin is that it is predominantly flavorless, which makes the shark killings for the soup even less understandable. The chewy cartilage of the shark’s fin creates a texture within the soup while a beef or chicken broth is generally used for adding flavor. Additionally, shark meat lacks any form of nutritional value. Furthermore, consuming shark fin soup may also be harmful to the individual who eats it. Recently, high levels of mercury were discovered in shark meat. Although many marine organisms contain mercury as a result of pollution in the sea, sharks are more susceptible to contamination since sharks are at the top of the food chain. Unfortunately, although shark meat can be cooked, this will not strip away the mercury concentrations. High levels of mercury are dangerous for humans to consume, leading to an increase in sterility, specifically in men. Thus, in understanding the lack of benefits in eating shark and the risk of consuming mercury, the high price and high demand of shark fin soup seems unjustified.
II. Why is Shark Fining a Problem?
Sharks first came into existence over 400 million years ago, which is even before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Now, the species that has been a dominant and critical force within the water is being destroyed by humans on land. Maintaining biodiversity within the world’s oceans is crucial, but losing an apex predator such as the shark could be extremely detrimental to the ocean’s ecosystem. “If you remove apex predators from an ecosystem the result is the same as removing the foundations from a building-total collapse.” Sitting at the top of the food chain and without any major predatory threats, sharks avoided the commercial fishing threat from humans as well. This was indeed the case until the demand for shark fin soup returned within the past 30 years. Because sharks have not had massive natural risks to their population, they have not needed high reproduction rates. Low reproductive rates combined with long life spans and late sexual maturity impairs the shark’s ability to recover from the act of shark finning. This aspect of a shark is very similar to that of many land mammals. Not only do sharks not start reproducing until between the ages of seven and fourteen, but they only give birth to a few offspring at a time.
Many individuals are not concerned with the shark population quickly decreasing because the species is feared. However, sharks play a greater role in the earth’s ecosystem then people are aware of. Humans would undoubtedly care more if they knew that the loss of the shark population would affect their own lives. Zoologist, Ellen Pikitch, explained how removing sharks from the world’s oceans would be the origin of an impactful chain of events:
No sharks means more skates and rays, and more skates and rays means less scallops and oysters and shellfish because the rays are eating them before the fishermen can catch them. Shellfish have filtration systems that improve water quality; with fewer shellfish, water becomes more susceptible to aberrations like brown tides…Take away sharks…and we end up compromising the ocean’s immune system.
Thus, removing sharks or drastically decreasing their numbers in the wild could result in a major disturbance among other species and the ocean’s ecosystem in general.
III. What Are the Current Legal Protections Against Shark Finning?
As a result of humans dislike for sharks, “when sharks bite people, the attacks make news…When people attack sharks, though, the events usually go unnoticed,” which is why shark finning is not at the forefront of the law. Three current international laws are in place to protect the conservation of sharks, including the International Plan of Action for Sharks (“IPOA-Sharks”), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”), and the Conservation of Migratory Species (“CMS”). Although there are efforts to protect the 350 types of sharks, more must be done in terms of regulation because international policing is lacking.
CITES is a treaty that regulates the trade of endangered species internationally and it was first signed in to force in 1973. Considered one of the most successful treaties for the international conservation of animals, 175 countries were party to the treaty as of 2009. CITES main objective is to monitor international trade of animals. Although protecting animals in the trade market is the aim of CITES, arguably, endangered animals are not being protected in general. To help with the monitoring, animals are placed into one of three categories, Appendix I, II, or III. Under Appendix I, the species listed are threatened with extinction thus prohibiting international commercial trade of approximately 900 species. Appendix I species have strict stipulations about trading, which may only occur if permits and consent are given by the exporting and importing countries. Further, these species cannot be used for primarily commercial purposes. Under Appendix II, species include those that are not yet threatened with extinction but that could become extinct if trade is not closely watched. This includes about 32,000 species. Trade of Appendix II species requires a permit for export but not for import, and the exporting country must state that the export will not be detrimental to the species survival. Lastly, Appendix III species govern animals on a domestic level. Countries can list species that it feels need further protection under domestic law in hopes of gaining support on the international level. Appendix III species require an export permit but not an import permit for international trade.
Although CITES is in place to protect species from international trade, it is currently not an effective safeguard for sharks. Only three species are presently listed on CITES, the basking, whale, and great white sharks, all listed in accordance with Appendix II. On the other hand, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) lists about 200 sharks on its Red List that are critical, vulnerable, or actually endangered. A few major problems lie within the application of CITES itself. Even if international trade can be effectively monitored, the amount of endangered animals could continue to increase within the country if that countries monitoring of its own animals is weak. Many countries that are poor or do not have a stable government do not monitor the trade of animals within their country. This obstacle is further complicated because only a small portion of the shark is being traded, and distinguishing between a protected shark fin and a non-protected shark fin would be close to impossible. An individual could easily label a great white shark fin as a hammerhead shark fin and it would cross the boarder without difficulty. Lastly, permits are easy to duplicate and often boarder control officers are uneducated regarding what is crossing their boarders.
Another major criticism of CITES is that parties are allowed to take reservation in regards to certain species on the list. Taking reservation means that countries can object to the listing of a particular species and do not have to afford that species protection. That country can continue to trade that species with countries that also reserve or that are not party to CITES in general. Reserving presents a problem because “[e]ach member's respective political and economic pressures pose threats to effective compliance with the treaty.” Japan, Indonesia, and the Republic of Korea have each reserved for at least two out of three sharks listed on the CITES list, all significant countries that export shark fins. Lastly, since reliance depends entirely upon state enforcement and no punishment or deterrent exists for breaking CITES, countries are going to be less likely to enforce the treaty. Therefore, if a country that is a party to CITES profits greatly from the export or import of a certain animal, regulation is not in place to prevent that country from trading. This idea is further reinforced because the majority of the species being protected by CITES are domiciled in economically unstable and developing countries.
A second international law in place to protect the shark population is IPOA-Sharks. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations created IPOA-Sharks to “ensure the conservation and management of sharks and their long-term sustainable use.” IPOA-Sharks promotes an increase in international research and recording of new data about species identification, populations, catching, and trading. All shark species are covered and conserved under IPOA-Sharks. It also promotes that each state implement a “Shark Plan” to collect and circulate educational material in hopes to ensure the management of shark conservation and sustainable use. IPOA-Sharks indicates that the “Shark Plan” should aim to, among other things,
Ensure that shark catches from directed and non-directed fisheries are sustainable; assess threats to shark populations, determine and protect critical habitats and implement harvesting strategies consistent with the principles of biological sustainability and rational long-term economic use; minimize unutilized incidental catches of sharks; contribute to the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function; minimize waste and discards from shark catches; encourage full use of dead sharks; and facilitate the identification and reporting of species-specific biological and trade data.
Although IPOA-Sharks offers guidance and recommendations for states to have effective “Shark Plans,” there is no reward or punishment for creating or not creating a plan. This is just one illustration of why IPOA-Sharks proves inadequate in the international realm. A successful IPOA-Shark program depends greatly on implementation by every country, and without a reward or punishment system countries are less apt to get involved. A combination of “under-reporting of legal trade and unreported black market trade” leads to extremely inaccurate trade data among countries that actually report its trade to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Furthermore, with IPOA-Sharks’ success hinging on countries doing research and collecting data, financial resources and funding raises a new obstacle. This especially becomes a problem for developing countries that have economic incentives not to create “Shark Plans” if the trade of shark fins proves profitable. Additionally, the money a developing country could spend on research and monitoring of its shark species could easily be spent in a more advantageous way to improve the country as a whole.
Conservation of Migratory Species, or CMS protects migratory species, like sharks, which are endangered or run the risk of becoming endangered in a similar approach as offered under CITES. As of January 2010, there are 113 member parties to CMS. Animals are voted on and placed into one of two categories, Appendix I and Appendix II, which dictate the level of protection each migratory species receives.
Migratory species that are listed under Appendix I are endangered and considered at risk for extinction. Appendix I explains that States should “strive towards strictly protecting these animals, conserving or restoring the habitats in which they live, mitigating obstacles to migration and controlling other factors that might endanger them.” To secure a place on Appendix I, a country must submit a proposal indicating that a migratory species should be considered endangered, then the Conference of the Parties decides whether to grant such a request. The Conference of the Parties can also remove species from Appendix I once the determination is made, based on scientific research and data, that the species are not considered endangered or at risk to become endangered again.
Appendix II is for migratory species that have an “unfavorable conservation status or would benefit significantly from international co-operation organized by tailored agreements.” Appendix II is less structured and stringent compared to Appendix I when evaluating the listing of migratory species and the protections that the species should receive. Appendix II only functions as a building block for other potential international agreements between countries regarding the conservation of migratory species.
CMS presents very similar issues regarding the protection of sharks that arise with both CITES and IPOA-Sharks. Success of CMS depends largely on research, cooperation between countries, exchange of data, and monetary support. Without an incentive to follow CMS, countries are less likely or willing to protect sharks, cooperate with other states, or give accurate data. Additionally, CMS only lists three of the 197 shark species that IUCN or TRAFFIC consider endangered on either Appendix I or Appendix II.
IV. Is There a Possible Solution?
Chinese NBA superstar, Yao Ming, stated, “endangered species are our friends” and vowed never to eat shark fin soup again. Unfortunately, celebrity support alone is not enough to curb the international demand for shark fins. Although international treaties appear to be a practical and impactful course of action at first glance, history has proven that treaties are only as effective as countries wish to make them. Therefore, regulation beyond the scope of international treaties must be implemented if shark finning will be terminated in the future.
A. Long Term Solution
At this point, less then 20 countries have banned the practice of shark finning, including the EU and the United States, but the majority of countries that profit from shark finning have not enacted such a law. An overall ban of shark finning will probably not be a sufficient answer to the existing problem. Several possible solutions exist, but nothing will be successful on an international scale without strong global unity and support.
Many possible solutions are available when looking at implementing a change over a long period of time. One of the foremost proposals aimed at stopping the activity of shark finning was recently discussed by Sonja Fordham, the policy director of Shark Alliance. She indicated, with the support of many other scientists, that "[r]equiring that sharks be landed with their fins attached is by far the most reliable means of enforcing a ban on shark finning." This would ultimately mean that fisherman could not catch sharks just for their fins; thus, fewer sharks could be caught in one trip. Ultimately, this could not materialize without some sort of international consensus. The following suggestions could make an international agreement to require that sharks be brought into port with their fins connected more effective.
Initially, implementing sanctions or a punishment system for failing to adhere to international law should be constructed in regards to all international treaties. This obviously proves to be a difficult obstacle because there is no system of international police in position. A lack of penalization and the voluntary nature of treaties are factors that make treaties ineffective internationally. Who or what would be the ultimate enforcer of the sanction system? The enforcing power would have to remain in the hands of each individual country, but these countries need to have an incentive to comply with international law. Regional or bilateral agreements “would allow nations to use their market relationship to apply direct pressure on one another to comply.”
Another necessary occurrence is a general increase in funding for research and enforcement against shark finning. This concept parallels enforcement and monitoring. Monitoring and enforcement cannot occur without more funding, but a major issue is where the additional finances are going to come from. Placing more shark species under Appendix I and II of CITES could be an initial step to assist in monitoring of the shark species. Although the majority of environmental issues require funding, the Global Environmental Facility may be a possible solution. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) is “[a]n independent financial organization [that] provides grants to developing countries and countries with economies in transition for projects related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, the ozone layer, and persistent organic pollutants.” An increase in funding would directly correlate with an increase in the quality, accuracy of research, and the conservation efforts. Also, enforcement by each of the individual countries would be further supported by financial reinforcement.
Lastly, increasing the amount of international education and support from environmental groups could help curb shark finning. Shark finning is not a very well known activity, nor do many people understand the result that shark finning has on the shark population. Further, even if people knew that sharks were dying, less would be concerned due to the image of sharks as ferocious man eating predators. Education needs to be extended to both the developing and developed countries. The majority of these countries are unaware of the substantial and irreparable harm they are causing to their ecosystems. Many countries do not realize the immense amount of ecological wealth that exists within their boarders and do not realize the potential destruction extends further than the killing of sharks for shark fin soup. An “education campaign should aim to dispel the negative image of sharks prevalent among the general public, increasing the public’s willingness to help conserve shark populations.” Hopefully, if the general public begins to empathize with the shark population, the demand for shark fin soup will decrease and the threat to the shark population will decrease as well.
B. Short Term Solution
Although the suggestions presented in the preceding section all aim to make a difference in the long term, none of these possess the ability to make an immediate impact. Steps need to be taken today to help save the shark population from finning, and human activism appears to be the best possible option at this time. Each individual has the power to influence the shark finning market on some level.
Fist, numerous shark finning activist groups exist throughout the United States and the world. If these groups would collaborate and join efforts for the cause, their voices would be that much louder internationally. This way, one major headquarters could exist and smaller subgroups could be located throughout the world. Groups could plan organized events to occur at the same time in hopes of generating a larger impact. Greenpeace was able to draw international attention to the problem of whaling; therefore, environmental groups’ collaborative efforts should be able to do the same for the sharks. In the mean time, several different groups that exist have suggested boycotting restaurants that serve shark fin soup or even protesting outside the restaurants doors and telling patrons about the harms of shark finning. Although this seems radical, getting an owner of a restaurant to remove shark fin soup from its menu can lessen the demand for shark fins even by a small amount.
Secondly, individuals should do research into whether their country is one of the countries that have banned shark finning already. Just recently, the United States House of Representatives passed the Shark Conservation Act of 2009, which bans all fin removal at sea, encourages other countries to enact a similar program, and creates sanctions for violations. The bill is currently awaiting acceptance by the Senate. If more countries enact similar bills then the possibility exists to decrease shark finning on an international level. Although a bill could take a long period of time to pass, individuals can participate now by creating petitions or contacting their governments to impose similar acts as the United States has. Making the governments aware that its citizens are concerned about shark finning is an important step in forcing change in each individual country.
A third simple step in creating international awareness of shark finning is spreading the word. Formulating a global education system could be costly, take a long time to create, and be hard to implement, but telling a friend about the dangers of shark finning is effortless. In 2007, Rob Stewart took this idea to the next level with his documentary “Sharkwater.” The movie explores the “exploitation and corruption” surrounding the shark finning industry, and takes viewers on a dangerous personal journey “resulting in pirate boat rammings, gunboat chases, mafia espionage, corrupt court systems and attempted murder charges, forcing them to flee for their lives.” This is not a suggestion that every individual create a documentary film; rather, the movie is proof that one ordinary person, such as Stewart, can create an international impact. As a result, “Sharkwater” has won 31 international awards, has gained recognition world wide, and has brought a much-unknown cause to the public’s attention. Most individuals are unaware that it is relatively simple for them to make an immediate impact in regards to the shark-finning crisis. Although international treaties, education, and sanctions are ultimate, long-term solutions, community activism and participation are steps toward international awareness and change today.
According to the Shark Foundation, three sharks die every second  as a result of human interference with shark’s habitats. Human desire for edible delicacies has pushed an entire species close to extinction. If this wasteful practice continues, sharks could be ripped from the food chain and, as a result, disrupt biodiversity forever. Without international cooperation establishing increased funding, education, monitoring, enforcement, and sanctions in the future, shark finning will continue in international waters. In the mean time and until international laws pass, individuals need to give the issue of shark finning a voice and take matters into their own hands.
 Mark D. Evans, Shark Conservation: The Need For Increased Efforts to Protect Shark Populations in the Twenty-First Century, 10 Penn St. Envtl. L. Rev. 13 (2001).
 Jessica Spiegel, Even Jaws Deserves to Keep His Fins: Outlawing Shark Finning Throughout Global Waters, 24 B.C. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 409, 410 (2001).
 Spiegel, supra note 7, at 411.
 Romney Philpott, Why Sharks May Have Nothing to Fear More Than Fear Itself: An Analysis of The Effect of Human Attitudes on the Conservation of the Great White Shark, 13 Colo. J. Int’l Envtl. L. & Pol’y 445, 453 (2002).
 Spiegel, supra note 7, at 414.
 Shark Finning and Fin Soup, supra note 13.
 Qiwen, supra note 20.
 The IUCN/SCC Shark Specialist Group, supra note 21.
 Spiegel, supra note 7, at 409.
 Evans, supra note 1, at 20.
 Bird, supra note 14.
 CITES, supra note 33, art. II ¶ 1.
 Id. at art. III ¶ 2.
 Id. at art. III ¶ 3(c).
 Id. at art. II ¶ 2(a).
 CITES Animals Committee, Oct. 2-14, 2004, Interpretation and Implementation of the Convention Species Trade and Conservation Issues: Conservation and Management of Sharks, http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/13/doc/E13-35.pdf (last visited Oct 29, 2009).
 Philpott, supra note 15, at 460.
 Shennie Patel, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species: Enforcement and the Last Unicorn, 18 Hous. J. Int’l L. 157, 186 (1995).
 Philpott, supra note 15, at 460.
 Holly Edwards, When Predators Become Prey: The Need for International Shark Conservation, 12 Ocean & Coastal L.J. 305, 308 (2007).
 Edwards, supra note 51, at 339.
 Barboza, supra note 18.
 Edwards, supra note 51, at 344.
 Edwards, supra note 51, at 351.
 Shark Conservation Act of 2009, H.R. 81, 111th Cong. (2009).
 Sharkwater, supra note 8.