Home / Politics / Policy /  Will ban on finning save the shark?

New Delhi: “It actually tastes of nothing," celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay once told his television audience while tasting some shark fin soup at a Taiwanese restaurant. “It’s like having plain glass noodles."

Millions of people obviously don’t think so. The demand for the pricey shark fin soup, a delicacy of the Cantonese cuisine, has increased tremendously among the emergent Chinese middle class eager to flaunt their newfound prosperity.

For the sharks, it means a gruesome death. Since its meat is not highly valued, the shark is thrown back into the sea after its fins are hacked off, letting the fish sink to the bottom to die painfully.

As many as 73-100 million sharks are killed every year to feed the $360 billion fin industry, according to a report published on 30 May in Oryx, an international journal on conservation. Such overfishing threatens the survival of the top marine predator.

After an outcry by conservationists, China in December banned shark fin soup and bird’s nest soup from official banquets, ostensibly to reduce government expenditure.

Surprisingly India, where shark fins are not a popular culinary choice, is the second largest shark-catching nation after Indonesia, according to TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors wildlife trade. At least 74,000 tonnes of sharks are caught by the country’s fishermen, which with Indonesia accounted for 20% of the global catch between 2002 and 2011, the wildlife trade monitoring network says. India’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, however, says only 26,746 tonnes of sharks were caught in 2011.

Condemning the ghastly act of cutting off fins from sharks, the country's environment ministry in August banned the practice, making it illegal to be found possessing a severed fin.

Indian waters are home to some 60 varieties of sharks among the 465 found globally. Out of these only four—Whale shark, Ganges shark, Pondicherry Shark and Speartooth shark—are shielded under the wildlife protection law.

Like the tiger on land, sharks are a keystone species in the oceans. The indiscriminate butchering of the apex predator of the seas may hold grave consequences for the marine ecosystem. A July 2001 ban on shark hunting by the environment ministry was short-lived after strong protests from fishing communities.

Currently, 65 countries have banned finning, but in most cases laws, rules and conservation measures remain weak and ambiguous. Many of them remain open to different interpretations.

“Every country with a coastline exports shark fins to Hong Kong and China," says Shelley Clarke, fisheries scientist and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) shark specialist group. “Though the demand for fins has grown over the years, the supply has dwindled because of unsustainable fishing practices."

Will the bar on finning work in India? The recent rule on making it a crime has already drawn protests.

While applauding the environment ministry’s action, Vincent Jain, chief executive of Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, says: “Since 2005, there has been no shark finning by artisanal fishermen. Only trawlers are engaged in this cruel practice." Jain is apprehensive that if monitoring and implementing officers are not well-versed with the present ban and its contents, it may lead to unnecessary complication.

Other experts share his concern.

“It will be difficult to enforce the ban on the ground as there is not enough awareness among officials and the fishing community," says Shekhar Niraj, head of Traffic India. “As it involves livelihood issues, and no social impact assessments have been accounted, it may create social unrest amongst local fishermen."

There’s also the problem of foreign fishing vessels coming into Indian waters to fish sharks illegally, says Niraj, who in his previous role as director of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park has confiscated wildlife contraband, including shark fins.

Conservationist and film-maker Himanshu Malhotra, who recorded the gruesome act of shark-finning at sea for his award winning documentary Diminishing Resources (2006), agrees with Neeraj that ground realities are different and a central notification may not work. Also, there’s this uncomfortable fact that most of the Indian trade in shark fins takes place in the black market. Although TRAFFIC data show the country is the second largest catcher of the fish, it is not a leading exporter of shark fins. In fact, it does not even make it to the top 15 list. The top exporters are Spain, Singapore, Taiwan and Indonesia. They export mainly to Hong Kong, the world’s biggest market.

India exported 91 tonnes of dried shark fin worth $6.37 million in financial year 2012-13, according to the Marine Products Export Development Authority, of which 76 tonnes worth $4.9 million were shipped to China.

Some 200 tonnes of predominantly frozen shark products are imported every year from India, European Union import data show.

“We need more information on what species are being caught and in what numbers to add up to the annual average of 74,000 tonnes," says Samir Sinha, former head, TRAFFIC India. “It is surprising that the second largest shark catcher in the world doesn’t even feature in the top exporters of shark fins, the most prized trade component. How come this is possible unless fins are exported illegally?"

Sinha is not alone in his scepticism.

“The growth of the international market for shark fins has coincided with an expansion of shark fishing in India, raising concerns that some shark species are overexploited," said 2004 report by Zeke Hausfather, researcher at Grinnell College, Iowa, US. “India exports almost all shark fins it produces in what is largely an informal and unregulated sector, and most observers believe that official export data greatly understate actual shark-fin exports."

Consumption within the country may also be increasing, found a 2013 survey on seafood consumption patterns by the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, mainly due to demand from tourists in Goa.

To be sure, a sustainable solution to the knotty problem of hunting sharks for their fins has so far eluded conservationists.

Banning shark finning will not reduce the number of sharks being killed worldwide till some countries continue to import shark meat, some marine experts say.

Others say there has to be a complete ban on hunting sharks to save the species. Still others hold that an international cap on shark catches could make for sustainable fishing.

“Shark finning bans may not control shark mortality, but it is a very good way to understand what species are being killed because we have very poor catch records," says IUCN’s Clarke.

India is a founding member of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which called for a national conservation and management plan for sharks way back in 1999. It is still “in development", government officials say, requesting anonymity.

That, for sharks, is hardly promising.

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