Sharks are sought for fins, meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage, with the demand for shark meat as concerning as the more publicized pursuit of their fins. According to FAO statistics, the average declared value of global shark fin imports from 2000 to 2011 was nearly US$378 million per year. Shark meat is more likely to be consumed locally, but the average declared value of shark meat products in the same time frame was still nearly US$240 million a year.
The demand for shark fins in Asia, and shark meat more globally, are the biggest factors driving overfishing and population declines. In Hong Kong, the centre of the fin trade, shark fin soup is a luxury item served at wedding banquets and other celebrations; it symbolizes power, wealth and generosity. Meanwhile on the Chinese mainland, the gill plates of manta rays and devil rays are used to make a detoxifying health tonic.
While the demand for shark, ray and skate meat isn’t given as much attention as shark fin, the international demand for these products has more than doubled since the early 1990s, and the sheer volume from fisheries that are not well managed is a serious threat to the survival of these species. We have more than 10 years of experience in reducing the unsustainable consumption of shark fin in key Asian markets, and are expanding the scope of our work to understand and tackle major markets for shark and ray meat.
WWF have focused our efforts on three countries, which are collectively landing one quarter of the world’s shark, rays and chimeras.
Indonesia and India are two of the largest shark-catching nations in the world, and Pakistan is also a major player. Most of their fisheries taking sharks are unmanaged or lack catch limits, and we have provided support to these governments to develop National Plans of Action for Sharks. These establish the foundations for better monitoring, protection of vulnerable species and better managed fisheries. Not stopping at the policy level, we strive to collaborate with fishers and communities for mutually beneficial management improvements.
To address high levels of shark harvest and trade associated with tuna fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Pacific Island nations (more than 25 per cent of the global tuna catch), WWF/TRAFFIC launched the Pacific Shark Heritage Programme in 2014 to assist nations to reduce overfishing, through improved management.
Well-managed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) help conserve species and habitats. We have collaborated with authorities to advocate the establishment of MPAs for sharks in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ecuador and other parts of the world.
WWF has also collaborated with The Manta Trust and Project AWARE to produce the Responsible Shark and Ray Tourism: A Guide to Best Practice. The Guide contains practical tools and guidance on best practises that can be used by operators, NGOs and local communities.
While progress toward establishing sustainable shark fisheries has been painfully slow at the national level, there has been a breakthrough in trying to ensure that the international trade in conducted sustainably. If a species is listed on CITES Appendix II, the animals and products from them cannot be exported unless it can be shown that their exports will not affect the survival of these species in the wild.
Following campaigns by WWF, TRAFFIC and like-minded organisations in 2013 and 2016, 20 species of shark and ray are now listed on CITES Appendix II. The listings cover some of the most commercially valuable shark and ray species, and will ideally motivate shark fishing nations to accelerate fisheries improvements. Species include the oceanic whitetip, silky and thresher sharks, and manta rays.
Wildlife trade experts TRAFFIC provide deep insights into the murky world of internationally traded shark and ray products, and seek to introduce traceability systems as the backbone of sustainability.
WWF and TRAFFIC will continue to monitor the trade to ensure that credible and transparent sustainability assessments are undertaken, and that importing nations comply with CITES permit controls to prevent shark fin and meat and manta gill plates being imported illegally.