Asian Shark-Fin Trade May Be Larger Than Expected

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 28, 2003

Scientists analyzing trade statistics from Hong Kong's bustling dried seafood markets have found that the global shark fin trade may have been significantly underestimated. The study intensifies conservationists' concerns for sharks and other threatened marine species.

The study, which was sponsored by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), suggests that the quantity of shark fins moving through Asian markets could be more than double previous estimates. Previous figures compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Rome, Italy, have been used to help monitor and manage the worlds fish populations.

Lead author Shelley Clarke of Imperial College, London, used the trade-based approach to assess fishing rates of sharks and other at-risk marine species. "The idea behind the research was that there's a lot of concern about over-fishing of sharks and other species, and a lot of attempts to improve monitoring at fishing level," she said. "But while they are going on, why not examine this from a market perspective?"

"Improved monitoring at the local level in key seafood trading centers like Hong Kong could help correct inaccurate information used to manage or regulate fishing levels," she said. "Although I don't believe that trade data will ever be more important than fisheries monitoring data."

Key Market

Hong Kong's busy Sai Yun Pun district serves as the center of global trade in shark fins, which are considered a delicacy in many Asian diets. To harvest shark fins, fishers ply the world's ocean. Some definned sharks are fully utilized. Other sharks are caught solely for their fins. They are caught, finned by fishers, and returned to the ocean, where the shark bleeds to death. Fins are later salted and dried for sale to consumers.

Estimates suggest that Hong Kong handles 50 to 85 percent of the world's shark fin imports. Between 1996 and 2000, shark fin trade grew more then five percent a year in Hong Kong. (However 2001 figures show significant decreases in both Hong Kong and worldwide trade volume, and may reflect a new trend.)

Clarke's focused her research in the Sai Yun Pun district on shark fins and other dried seafood species, such as abalone and sea cucumbers, that had measurable trade records. Clarke found significant differences between the recorded trade numbers of shark fins in Hong Kong and key trading partners—particularly the enormous market of mainland China.

Clarke suggested the differences were rooted in inaccurate and changing reporting systems, rather than intentional manipulation. Nevertheless, the research led Clarke and her colleagues to estimate that other jurisdictions could also be significantly underreporting trade figures by 24 to 49 percent as compared to Hong Kong.

Soaring Demand

Growing human populations and improved fishing technology have placed marine animals under siege across the world's oceans. Managing these threatened resources poses a challenge that begins with acquiring accurate data on the nature and scope of the problem. Resources managers seek to answer such questions as, what species are being fished and how much are fishers catching?

Adele Crispoldi and Stefania Vannuccini, fishery statisticians at the FAO, note that incomplete, inaccurate, and delayed reporting makes gathering accurate statistics a challenge for the organization. FAO gathers its information from national fishery reports filed by member nations.

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