In many parts of the world, shark fins are considered a delicacy, and the demand for them leads to the deaths of millions of sharks every year. Not only does this put the shark population at risk, but the practice of shark finning itself is highly cruel.
In his 26 years living in Hong Kong, Gary Stokes has gotten an up-close and personal look at the unpleasant realities of the global shark fin trade, and thankfully, he and his organization are working to stop it.
Gary Stokes has lived in Hong Kong for 26 years serving as the Southeast Asia director for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In that time, he’s gotten an up-close look at the shark fin trade, something he and his organization want to help end.
Shark fins are obtained by cutting the fins off of live sharks that inevitably die afterwards, and the massive amounts of fins that Gary regularly sees speak to the deaths of millions of sharks.
The demand for shark fins comes from the popularity of shark fin soup, known as the food of the emperors. In countries like China, the soup is served at weddings and other special occasions, and is considered a sign of wealth and prosperity.
Shark fin soup can cost as much as $100 per bowl, but the shark population pays a much bigger price, with an estimated 73 million sharks killed every year to meet the demand for the soup. Scientists say that this means they’re being killed 30% faster than they can reproduce.
The practice of shark finning itself is an extremely cruel one. The fins are cut off live sharks for freshness, and most of the time the sharks are thrown back into the ocean, unable to move or breathe normally.
Their death is often long and drawn out, with most eventually sinking and bleeding out or suffocating. The lucky ones are killed and eaten by bigger predators sooner rather than later.
China is the biggest importer of shark fins, and most of them pass through Hong Kong, where they’re stored in big warehouses and containers, or spread out on rooftops or streets to dry.
One of the largest amounts of shark fins Gary ever came across in his conservation work was on a high-rise rooftop, where he found over 100,000 shark fins drying. He chartered a helicopter so he could take aerial photographs that emphasized the scope of the problem.
While China gets most of the blame for the shark fin trade, Gary points out that its a global problem. Countries like Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates are also huge importers, and most countries with ocean access contribute to the global shark fin trade.
Even the United States contributes to the problem. While the act of shark finning itself is outlawed, the trade of shark fin products is perfectly legal in 39 states. Plus, its often very difficult for customs agents to determine what shark fins are obtained legally or illegally.
Gary finds that its difficult to muster sympathy for sharks, and even international laws like the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna only regulate the trade of shark products rather than protect the animals.
Despite the challenges that sharks face, though, Gary is optimistic that the efforts of his organization and others to draw attention to the cruel practices involved in the shark fin trade are having an impact, noting especially the decreasing demand by young people for shark fin soup at weddings and other special events.
Who knew the shark fin trade was such a tremendous global problem? Thank goodness organizations like Gary’s are fighting to get rid of this inhumane practice once and for all!
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