India bans shark 'finning' to save the endangered species

Sep 11, 2013, 07:42 IST | Fatema Pittalwala

Last month, India joined the list of countries that have banned shark finning at sea. Sharks, themselves predators of the sea, are actually victims of the cruel practice which is also decimating their numbers. We take a closer look at the issue

We fear them as predators, but in reality, sharks are at the receiving end of unimaginable torture and cruelty, all in the name of a delicacy. Shark’s fin soup. Though most Indians may not be familiar with this dish, for countless Chinese people, it is a high-end standard on the menu, and serving shark’s fin soup at a function or formal dinner is a sign of status.

There is a drastic decline in the shark population due to practices such as finning. Pic/HSI

But because of the inhuman way in which the fin is cut off the living shark, the procedure is banned in many countries. In August, India joined the list of countries which have banned finning of sharks at sea.

A man holding a shark’s fin, which can cost up to $500, depending on the species. Pic/HSI

Fishermen found guilty of detaching fins from living sharks will risk up to seven years in prison for hunting endangered species, as identifying the species only through the fins is difficult. Shark finning at sea enables fishing vessels to increase profitability and increase the number of sharks harvested, as they only have to store and transport the fins, by far the most profitable part of the shark.

The shark’s fin soup.

Shark finning is a practice where the fishermen cuts off the fins of the sharks and throw the still-living animal back into the ocean where it lies on the seabed, unable to move, ultimately to die of starvation and in pain. C Samyukta of Humane Society International/India (HSI) says, “Very often the finned sharks are still alive. No longer able to swim without their fins, these sharks sink to the bottom of the ocean where they die a slow and painful death due to predation and starvation.” Under the new ban, though the export of shark fins is not prohibited, only the practice of shark finning onboard a vessel at sea is prohibited. Nevertheless, campaigners seem pleased with the move.

The fins are processed until they look like threads, and are added to the soup. Pics/Fatema Pittalwala

According to data compiled by the UN, India is the second-highest shark catcher in the world, averaging over 74,000 tons per year from 2000-2008. Indonesia leads the world, landing over 109,000 tonnes annually. According to a report by the international wildlife trade monitoring agency, Traffic, these two countries account for 20 per cent of yearly shark catches, between 2011 and 2012. Rounding out the top ten fishers of sharks are Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, the United States, Japan, and Malaysia. These countries account for more than 35 percent of all sharks taken annually. As per export data from the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), in 2012-2013, India has supplied 75 tonnes of shark fins to China alone with a cost of $4.84 million.

According to the manager at Flora Chinese, they don’t serve the soup, but the menu tells another story. Pic/Fatema Pittalwala

Under the Environment Ministry’s ban, fisheries are required to land sharks in coastal areas with their fins intact. The ban is a strong tool to fight against the cruel practice of shark finning. The practice of shark finning exploded worldwide due to the high demand from China. In order to display their wealth and prosperity the Chinese, unlike the rest who splurge on high-end cars and designer clothing, splurge on shark fin soup which is a delicacy in China.

The population of sharks across the world is fast declining. According to Samyukta the steep decline in shark population threatens the balance of the eco system. She says, “Sharks are at the top of the marine ecosystem and are crucial to maintaining a delicate marine ecosystem balance. De-finning sharks, which leads to their death, causes a great imbalance in the ecosystem by allowing unaccounted growth of the lower species of marine animals, which these apex predators would normally feed on. Tens of millions are caught every year. Shark finning has also caused tremendous reduction in population numbers as it does not allow sufficient individual sharks to reach the age of sexual maturity.”

According to Samyukta, due to shark finning, the population of already declining species such as whale sharks, hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks is at risk. She says that the ban is crucial as it will lead to better protection of sharks, which is mandated under the Wildlife Protection Act, and prevent over-fishing (fishing to a degree that upsets the ecological balance or depletion of the species).

Samyukta feels that the ban should have been implemented sooner but adds, “India, being the world’s second largest shark-fin-catching nation, has finally begun its journey towards caring about this important marine resource. Going further we hope to work with all coastal states governments and other stakeholders, such as fishermen, to create the required awareness and sensitivity towards the need, for shark conservation and its stringent application.”

Highlighting that people are not much aware about the kind of cruelty that animals go through before they are purchased, Samyukta says, “I believe there are very few people who are aware about where their food comes from, and what kind of treatments the animals are put through, before they arrive at your dining table, fridge, supermarket or even your local butcher’s shop. We hope the ban will bring down the demand for fins. India now needs to work on more measures for shark conservation, such as developing a National Plan of Action (NPOA) on sharks, as it is required to do according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.”

Talking about the popular shark fin soup, Samyukta says, “HSI has already worked with some internationally renowned chains and got them to pledge against serving any shark fins in their restaurants. We hope to begin the same process soon with leading establishments in India that serve shark’s fin soup. Most Indian fishermen catch sharks primarily for their meat; bones and skin of the sharks are also regularly exported. The demand for shark’s fin is so high, that sometimes one fin can garner $500, depending on the size, quality and the species of shark.”

Fin dining, not fine
To find out how popular shark’s fin soup is in Mumbai, we made a dinner date at two city restaurants. Flora Chinese in Worli, one of the city’s oldest Chinese joints, was started by a Chinese family in the city. Like any other customers, we ordered the shark’s fin soup, priced at Rs 355, which arrived in 10 minutes,. The waiter mentioned that the soup was the most popular dish on the menu, but they had to be discreet while serving it. Manager Tony Leong (25), however, says, “No restaurant in Mumbai is allowed to serve this soup so we wouldn’t serve it either. It is illegal. In the old days we use to serve it, but not any more. I don’t know why anyone would tell you that we serve this soup.”

China Valley restaurant in Prabhadevi prices its shark’s fin soup at Rs 230.
The manager, Jaywant Gadakh, says “One kilogram of shark fins cost around Rs 4,500, and we never get as much as we require. Monthly we need at least two kilograms but we manage to get only half a kilo. The demand for the soup is also not very high; it is mainly the foreigners who order it, like the Japanese or the Chinese. The Indian customers don’t care much for this soup. They are always looking for big chunks of fins in it. We are definitely more conscious when we buy the fins, but with this ban in place, we will be more conscious now. I will personally make sure that the exporters from whom we purchase the fins do not practice shark finning at sea.”

Top 20
Shark catchers

Indonesia ............. 13%
India ...................... 9%
Spain ................... 7.3%
taiwan ............... 5.8%
Argentina ............. 4.3%
Mexico ............... 4.1%
Pakistan ............. 3.9%
USA .................... 3.7%
Japan ................. 3.0%
Malaysia ............. 2.9%
Thailand ............. 2.8%
France ................ 2.6%
Brazil ................. 2.4%
Sri Lanka ............ 2.4%
New Zealand ...... 2.2%
Portugal .............. 1.9%
Nigeria ............... 1.7%
Iran .................... 1.7%
UK ...................... 1.6%
South Korea ..... 14%

India has supplied 75 tonnes of shark fins to China alone, at a cost of $4.84 million

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