Even Sharks suffer, Imagine?

High up in the list of things I have to do before I die, is the stopping of shark finning.


What is this hideous trade? Sharks are a key species in the ocean. That means that they are responsible for the health of the waters and the fish. If you remove the sharks, all the other species will disappear.


China and the Chinese people, wherever they are, are the only people who make shark fin soup. Basically they boil the fins and throw them into clear soup. The fins have nothing in them that is of any value to the human body – it’s just something that the Chinese do. Just as every family wants an ivory seal - for which over 20,000 elephants have been killed in the last 3 years. The consumption of shark fins is seen as a symbol of wealth and social status and is served at celebrations. Shark fins are used in Chinese medicine as aphrodisiacs.While shark fin soup is very expensive (between US$10 and US$100 per bowl depending on the quality and amount of fin), the increase in the purchasing power of the Chinese has increased the demand.


And, as usual, India is raped.


How are the sharks killed? The boatman/fisherman/trawler go into the ocean and cast a net for sharks. The shark is held, the man cuts the fins off and then throws it back to thrash in the water till it dies of blood loss. Why does the shark finner do this? So that he does not have to use the space in the boat for the body and he can catch more sharks and carry more sharkfins. The fisherman cannot sell the meat of the shark – it is of very low quality because of the high levels of uric acid in the tissue.

An unbelievably cruel trade that destroys the ocean to make a useless product.


Is international opinion bringing this trade down in India? No. It is increasing rapidly every year. India is supplying 90% of the world’s shark fins.

Does the Indian government or economy make any money on this? No. Because most of the export is done in “Black”!!


To begin with, the entire catching is done in an unregulated manner. There are no laws of how many sharks can be killed and where the shark fins go. The fact that it is unregulated leads to enormous wastage. The body of the shark is wasted by the fisherman. For every fin sold, there are 6-7 that are thrown away. Thousands of sharks lose their lives daily. Today it is impossible to find many species and there are very few adults left.


International regulators have pointed out to the Indian Government that the official export data greatly understates actual shark fin exports. Two estimates of Indian shark fin exports, by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the other based on recorded Hong Kong imports from India, show that actual exports are many times greater than officially recorded amounts of approx 70,000 MT (metric tonnes).


Shark catching and finning is allowed on the grounds that it helps small fishermen. But small fishermen use catamarans and hand lines, and even motorized canoes use hook and line. Mechanized trawlers operating in Indian coastal waters account for 70% of all shark catches. No trawlers are owned by poor fishermen who are now down to 12% and decreasing. The trawlers are all owned by companies and very rich exporters, many of whom are not even Indian passport holders.


Andaman and Nicobar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are the four culprits. In fact, Gujarat’s trawlers catch more than half of India’s sharks. Most of the rest happens in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where no local market for shark meat exists.

Seventy species of sharks are found in Indian waters. Not a single fishing vessel keeps logs of their catch – and nor does the government ask for them. This is in sharp contrast to all the regulations and data asked from vessels in other countries.


The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute collects data with a random sampling method which leaves out finned sharks in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and poaching by foreign fleets. The FAO which is supposed to keep a check on shark catching all over the world has expressed major dissatisfaction with Indian officials about the veracity of this data; both in the amount of catches and the species.

Hong Kong handles between fifty percent and eighty-five percent of the global shark fin imports. Singapore handles the remaining international trade.


Shark fins in the international market are exported in either as ‘wet’ (frozen) or ‘dry’ and divided into ‘white’ fins and ‘black’ fins with white fins worth more in the international market. The corporation in charge of shark fin exports is the Marine Product Export Development Agency (MPEDA) .


Does the fisherman actually make any money? The wholesale prices are about Rs.250-Rs.300 per kg. The retail prices go to 10 times that amount in the Hong Kong or Singapore markets, with foreign middlemen pocketing the profits from our oceans . Some fins sell for US$744 per kg.


Does India make any money? Shark fin exports have no paperwork. MPEDA makes no efforts to actually regulate or even audit the trade; most of the time they are lumped with other “seafood” and sent out. Couriers carry shark fins by air, often clandestinely exported in personal baggage to avoid import tariffs at ports like Singapore. MPEDA also does not record wet fin exports, only dry ones. These factors make it difficult to quantify the actual traded volume of shark fins for tax purposes.

MPEDA says that India exported an average of 66,000 to 76,000 MT of fins a year from 1989 – 2002. The FAO estimates that the actual export was much greater – twice to thrice the amount. MPEDA data is based on voluntary reporting by shark fin exporters and this is obviously extremely unreliable to avoid duty. However, even the FAO figures underestimate the actual export.


The real figures come from recorded Hong Kong imports of dry fins from India. Comparing recorded Hong Kong data to MPEDA exports reveals dramatic differences. In the year 2000, for example, Hong Kong recorded imports of 665 MT of dry raw fins from India, while MPEDA reported total dry fin exports of only 248 MT to ALL destinations across the world. Over 5 years, recorded Hong Kong imports are 5.18 TIMES higher than MPEDA exports! Such gross underreportingof actual exports is a scam in itself.


This means that millions of sharks are being caught every year.


In July 2001, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, concerned with the depletion of shark species and knowing the difficulty of selectively catching only non-threatened species, banned the catching and trade of all shark species. Predictably the industry mounted a protest and politicians felt it was better to have votes than sharks. It did not help that the Minister was from Tamil Nadu, the state that led the protest and which controls 90% of the sharkfin trade. The ban was lifted in December, 2001.


International observers have expressed concern that most of the shark’s waters have been overfished. The decreasing length of sharks caught attest to this. Sharks have low growth rates and it is easy to wipe out whole populations. This results in a large number of other fish species also disappearing.


The trawlers and traders and middlemen of sharkfins will go somewhere else, but if the sharks and fish get wiped out, as is likely to happen, what will happen to the small fishermen?


The first thing is to make it illegal for any fisherman / trawler to bring back only fins. If the entire shark is brought back then less will be caught automatically and the damage to the ocean in releasing wounded sharks will be reduced.


Close down those areas for fishing that are substantially overfished and put a moratorium of 5 years in order for the sharks to revive.


MPEDA must do a better job at collecting data or be disbanded. They even misreport the species: MPEDA says that S. zygaena is one of India’s most important shark exports. Biologists say that it is such a rare species that it couldn’t possibly be.


There has to be accurate reporting and the shark trade has to be regulated. No shark fin can be exported without strict controls, and if there is a discrepancy between the amount found in Hong Kong, Singapore and the amount declared shipped from here, the company is to be shut down and its owners arrested. The shark fin trade has to go through more formal channels.


Even the fishermen agree that the first step would be to ban the practice of finning sharks off the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Shark fishermen could be helped financially to shift to other professions.


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi


Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*