'Sustainable' shark fin sources not exactly sustainable yet

Sharks take too long to reproduce.

Zhangxin Zheng | May 31, 2017, 05:49 PM

Global wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reported that Singapore is the world's second largest shark fin trader (both importer and exporter) in monetary value.

Singapore maintained this ranking for both time periods of 2005 to 2007 and 2012 to 2013.

Following the news coverage of this not so glamorous global ranking, a representative of Marine and Land Products Association told The Straits Times that almost all shark fin sold in Singapore, approximately 90 percent, comes from "sustainable" sources.

The association represents around 10 companies that are involved in the shark fin trade, which is approximately 70 percent of the shark fin industry here.

Here's the issue: "Sustainable" sources of shark fins do not ensure sustainable shark populations at all.

The traditional way of fin harvesting is removing fins from live sharks then tossing them back into the sea which is extremely unethical as the sharks will suffocate or die from bleeding. This is when "sustainable sourcing" arises which, by definition, means that "exploiting a resource sustainably requires whole animal use".

For instance, you remove the fins to sell as delicacies but you still use other parts of the same shark for consumption or baits and fertilisers.

This is also what the association representative, Yio Jin Xian wrote in his email to ST:

"Those countries require the sharks to be fully used, so typically, the fins are shipped to Asian markets, and the rest is used in Western countries for dishes like fish and chips. Those fins are not processed on boats by fishermen who cut them off and throw the dead sharks back in the sea. It is the whole shark that's used, not the fins alone."

However, such a method of harvesting does not help to save sharks from their dire plight at all.

Kathy Xu, founder of a social enterprise The Dorsal Effect and a volunteer of Shark Savers Singapore, expressed her concerns online about the misleading headline.

Here's what she wrote:

"What am I reading??? There is no such thing as sustainable shark fishery right now, especially not for the targetted species, given that they are mostly megafauna that reproduces slowly. Just because all parts of the shark is sold, that does NOT equate to sustainable fishing. Misleading headlines like this really sets conservation work back by so much. :( Thank goodness for WWF's Janissa Ng weighing in at the end of the article about how "there are no shark fisheries that have been independently certifies sustainable". Can only hope people read this till the end.."

Xu also explained further in the comment section on the slow reproduction rate of sharks, which rendered them as unprofitable to farm.

"Sharks need 7-13 years before they reach maturity and gestation period is 1-2years with a birth of about 4-6 pups a go. No farmer is going to wait that long before hitting profits from the fin, that's why there is no such thing as sustainable shark farming yet"

We provide you a typical farmed animal for comparison: A pig

- takes 3-12 months to mature

- the gestation period of a sow is 114 days

- with a birth of 7-12 piglets, about twice a year.

Similarly, the rate of shark killing by the fisheries is also way too fast for the populations to recover, resulting in 30 shark and ray species threatened with extinction and listed on Appendix I and II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

Calls for more transparency and accountability from Singapore, the second largest trader of shark fin

Notably in the article, WWF-Singapore spokesman Janissa Ng also weighed in to support that there is neither independently certified sustainable shark fisheries yet nor tracking systems that can trace shark products back to the point of harvest.

Also, according to an established Nature journal, products from sustainable shark fishing have to be labelled and traceable back to a well-managed source, which is a requirement that is rarely met in the market now.

That implies the entire supply chain has to be fairly transparent and accounted for, with details from capture vessel to retailer so that no illegal trade can be obscured.

Such transparency and accountability is what is lacking in major trading hubs such as Singapore and is crucial to enforce here.

Ng highlighted that more robust monitoring of species-specific trade volumes will provide a clearer picture of whether the trade of certain species is legal and sustainable.

More robust monitoring of volumes and protected species by Singapore will also set a positive precedent for other countries and contribute to healthier shark populations and oceans, according to Elaine Tan, Chief Executive Officer of WWF-Singapore.

Kanitha Krishnasamy, Senior Programme Manager for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia also added that open availability of product-specific trade data is key to monitor and sustain shark populations in the long run. Individuals and companies can then make responsible choices about which products they consume as well.

What can be done?

The report recommended Singapore Customs to start recording shark data using detailed Harmonised System Codes (HS Codes), developed by the World Customs Organisation for the classification of goods which Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) assured that is underway.

More detailed information such as differentiating between frozen and dried shark fins can provide a more accurate estimation of trade volume of shark fins -- the frozen shark fins can weigh four times as much as dried ones due to water content.

Group director of AVA's quarantine and inspection group, Chua Tze Hoong, shared with ST that the group updates the list of species-specific product codes according to CITES. Singapore has at least 10 shark and ray species with species-specific product codes, but not for all 30 listed in CITES which might be a loophole for illegal trade of the uncoded ones to go unnoticed.

Ending off with a more encouraging note, it is still laudable that consumer demand for shark fin in Singapore is already on the decline.

A study by WWF-Singapore last year found that 82 percent of Singaporeans surveyed have not consumed shark fin for at least a year and several restaurants and hotels, such as Hilton and Hyatt hotels, have removed shark fins from their menus.

Given 25 percent of shark species face extinction globally, defining what is sustainable goes beyond quotas and practices but a change in lifestyle and mindset.


Related articles:

Internet goes off the rails after WWF-Singapore tells us to eat less of our favourite fish


Top photo edited from Kathy Xu's Facebook post

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