Waiter, there's a shark fin in my soup...

By Sophie Barclay

Photo / David Vogt
Photo / David Vogt

Conservation: The popularity of shark fin soup is driving shark finning practices around the globe, New Zealand included.

In parts of China, a bowl of steaming shark fin soup confers upon the consumer an exclusive status, supposed good health and virility. With a growing Chinese middle class, shark fin soup is no longer the mainstay of the privileged.

Sharks have regulated the oceans for millions of years. They are slow to mature sexually and have few offspring. 73 million sharks are killed annually by humans contributing to a major decline in numbers. The majority is caught for a lucrative industry. Shark fins sell for up to US$1000 a kilogram.

Shark finning is a wasteful practice whereby only 2% of the fish is utilised. Fishermen land shark (directly or as by-catch), harvest the fins, and throw back the cumbersome carcass which fills valuable fishing vessel space. In New Zealand it is legal to fin sharks, as long as they are dead.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says that fishery observers ensure that live finning does not occur and that legal breaches result in prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act. However, there is evidence that live finning persists in New Zealand waters. A video posted on Forest & Bird's website, for example, depicts the cruel act; sharks flounder in the water; unable to swim and therefore unable to extract oxygen from the water. They drown.

Shark finning has been outlawed in 98 countries, as well as 9 regional fisheries management groups (which preside over international waters).

Last year, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Palau and American Samoa prohibited shark fishing entirely in their territorial waters, opting instead for shark sanctuaries.

Under its international obligations to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, New Zealand has a National Plan of Action (NPOA) for sharks, ensuring "the conservation and management of sharks and their long-term sustainable use." Of the 112 shark species recorded in our waters, more than 70 are fished. Yet only eleven of these are managed under the quota management system (QMS).

The New Zealand Shark Alliance (NZSA) is an umbrella group established last October, comprising NGOs as well as organisations concerned about the sustainability of sharks. The NZSA are pushing for public and political support to implement the 'fins naturally attached' method, the UN-recommended best practice.

Katrina Subedar from Forest & Bird, one of the 15 organisations in the NZSA, explains that the method would ensure only whole sharks were landed, reducing waste and bycatch profitability.

Currently, says Tracy Brown from Sea Shepherd (also an NZSA member), the industry could perceive finning as being cost-effective within the tuna industry.** "There are more sharks caught as bycatch in Southern Bluefin Tuna fisheries than the targeted fish, and little incentive for shark conservation."

The finning industry is small in New Zealand, says Scott Gallacher, the MPI deputy director of general resource management and programmes. Shark fin exports were valued at $4.5 million annually up to 2010 and are estimated to be around $2.5 million this last fishing year. Out of a $1.65 billion dollar export industry, it represents a tiny fraction. Despite this, New Zealand is among the top twenty fin suppliers to Hong Kong.

Many restaurants in New Zealand stock the soup. It is tough for consumers to discover the provenance of the fins and how they have been harvested.

Brown, also involved with Shark Fin Free Auckland (SFFA), says that these restaurant goers are overwhelmingly supportive of a shark finning ban - but restauranteurs appear less enthused.

"To date, no restaurants have removed shark fin from their menu, although one restaurant rewrote the menu omitting the shark fin dishes in English with the Chinese menu retaining all shark fin products."

The Chinese Communist party has recognised the issue, banning the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets. It will take time to implement, however, and longer to become established within the Chinese psyche.

Want to know more?
Ask where your soup came from, how it was caught and what species it was - or boycott.
For Auckland restaurants stocking the soup see http://www.sffa.org.nz/current-offenders
For NZ-wide stockists visit here.
If you are aware of shark finning occurring, contact the Ministry for Primary Industries 0800 00 83 33.

NZSA are screening Sharkwater, a film documenting the demise of the shark population on January 31st at Auckland University's Library Basement.

See more, and sign the petition against shark finning, here: nzsharkalliance.org.nz/.

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