Threatened sharks still common in fin trade, new study finds

Fins from threatened shark species seized by border control in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Diego Cardenosa.

Despite international protection, threatened species of sharks continue to be found in the Hong Kong fin trade.

A collaborative team from the United States and Hong Kong, led by FIU Marine Scientist Demian Chapman, conducted genetic analysis of 9,200 shark fin by-products. They found several threatened species remain common in the fin trade one to two years after being listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Hong Kong is one of the world’s largest importers of shark fins, which are used to make the delicacy shark fin soup. The study, published in Conservation Letters,  is the first assessment of the species composition of the fin trade after CITES regulations were put in place for commercially important shark species.

Fins from threatened shark species seized by border control in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Diego Cardenosa.

Since September 2014, CITES has regulated scalloped hammerheads, smooth hammerheads, great hammerheads, oceanic whitetips, and porbeagle sharks, some of the world’s most vulnerable and highly traded shark species. This means that permits are required to ship their products from country to country. From February 2014 to December 2016, the research team surveyed small scraps from processed imported fins – when the skin, meat and cartilage is trimmed off. They conducted DNA testing on randomly selected scraps to look for CITES-listed species.

Among the species found, scalloped and smooth hammerheads represented the fourth and fifth most common species found in the survey that included 82 species and species groups in total. Although the research team can’t rule out some delayed processing of fins, the disconnect between reported imports and how common these species were in the survey suggests that major under-reporting of CITES imports is occurring. The findings are consistent with other studies showing compliance with CITES regulations is relatively low during the initial phase of implementation.

“It is great that there is now a system in place to monitor trade in these threatened shark species,” Chapman said. “But listing them is just the first step. Our study highlights that countries fishing, trading, and consuming shark products all have a lot of implementation work to do.”

The team made some practical suggestions on how to improve inspection efficiency so that shark-importing nations like Hong Kong can better meet their obligations to CITES. While Hong Kong has been successful in their implementation efforts – hosting nine CITES workshops for enforcement officials, which led to the seizure of 5.1 metric tons of fins from listed species since late 2014 – the research team recommends additional actions:

  • Scaling up inspection capacity by employing additional inspectors
  • Improving inspection efficiency by centralizing ports of entry for fins and conducting real-time DNA testing in the field
  • Conducting assessments to flag high-risk shipments to prioritize inspections

Diego Cardeñosa, lead author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University, is now living and studying in Hong Kong to help the authorities develop new approaches to monitoring fin imports for CITES listed species, including DNA testing of fins directly at the port of entry.

“There is tremendous public support for better management of the shark fin trade in Hong Kong and the government has been willing to work with us and others to control what is coming in more effectively,” said Cardeñosa. “I am hopeful that with cooperation, increased investment, and time, CITES regulations will be fully implemented for these threatened sharks.”

The work was supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Pew Marine Fellows Program and The Roe Foundation.

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