Workers at a Taiwanese fishing port clean and process a haul of shark fins in new pictures taken by the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group.
Released October 19, the images show fins and body parts of vulnerable shark species—including the scalloped hammerhead and oceanic whitetip—being prepared for sale.
Up to 73 million sharks are caught each year for the global fin trade, which fuels a demand for shark-fin soup, according to Pew. Fishers usually slice the animals' fins off and throw their still-living bodies overboard.
"Unfortunately, since there are no limits on the number of these animals that can be killed in the open ocean, this activity can continue unabated," Pew's Matt Rand said in a statement. "This strip-mining of the world's sharks is clearly unsustainable."
On October 21 the Taiwan Fisheries Agency announced a ban starting next year on shark finning, but the ban only mandates that caught sharks be taken back to shore with their fins still attached.
"This announcement is an indication that Taiwan is on the right track when it comes to protecting sharks. However, it falls short of what is really needed," Rand said. "A finning ban does not address the larger overfishing problem that is driving these animals toward extinction."
Photograph courtesy Paul Hilton, Pew Environment Group
A Taiwanese fisher lands a mixed catch, including sharks, in one of the pictures released by Pew.
Shark fishing in Taiwan involves both large-scale fleets using so-called long-line fishing in international waters as well as small, local fishing boats operating closer to shore, experts say.
In Taiwan, 85 percent of sharks caught come from the high seas, Glenn Sant of TRAFFIC—a global wildlife-trade monitoring network—said by email.
Photograph courtesy Shawn Heinrichs, Pew Environment Group
Scalloped hammerhead sharks, fins removed, are lined up in a Taiwanese processing plant. Each year an estimated 1.3 to 2.7 million smooth and scalloped hammerheads are caught for their fins globally, experts say.
Scalloped hammerheads are especially vulnerable to overfishing. That's because the sharks are slow-growing—they can take up to 17 years to reach maturity—and females have a long gestation period. A long pregnancy limits the ability of hammerhead populations to recover once depleted.
Overall, "sharks play a critical role in the ocean environment," Pew's Jill Hepp said in a statement.
"Where shark populations are healthy, marine life thrives; but where they have been overfished, ecosystems fall out of balance," Hepp said.