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There is something about threats to big animals and big fish that grabs news headlines, galvanizes NGOs to start conservation campaigns and the general public to lobby politicians.  Perhaps it is the similarity to our own size that leads to anthropomorphic sympathy when tuna and sharks, or pandas and tigers are threatened.  We certainly don’t see the same effect with species at the bottom end of the size scale such as anchovies and krill.

The practice of shark finning has been a controversial topic for decades, and one that has been difficult to stamp out.  Progress has been made in some countries, while others such as the Gulf states still turn a blind eye.  Critics estimate that around 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, which fetch up to GBP 200 per kilo, and as a result some shark populations have plummeted by 90 percent in the past 60 years.

In California — where the shark-fin soup market was once the largest outside of Asia — the sale or possession of shark fins was banned a year ago, and shark fishing and/or finning is restricted or banned in all U.S. waters.   

Illegal fishing is no respecter of bans, and a gill net containing nearly 350 dead sharks was found recently by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Texas.  According to local Commander Daniel Deptula, more than 49 miles of banned gill nets were seized last year.

“Mexican fisheries have been depleted due to over fishing, resulting in increased illegal fishing activity in U.S. waters, but we continue our efforts to disrupt and dissuade this,” he said.

The EU is one of the largest exporters of shark fins to Asia, and despite a ban on finning since 2003, a legal loophole allowed companies with freezer vessels to apply for a special permit to land fins separately from the bodies.  In November 2012, members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of closing this loophole, despite opposition from Spain and Portugal.  

Conservation groups are now planning to lobby the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), when it meets in March, to consider proposals from the EU and U.S. to protect threatened shark species such as porbeagles, hammerheads and oceanic whitetips. However not all shark stocks around the world are threatened and there are commercially important, well regulated fisheries that could easily get caught up in a total ban.

In the U.K., shark and marine conservation charity Bite Back is trying a different tactic to halt the trade in shark fins, by stopping the sale of all shark and shark-derived products including shark fin soup, shark cartilage, jaws, teeth and oil.  

“We ask the public to tell us where shark products are being sold, then work with retailers and restaurateurs to have it removed from sale,” explained Graham Buckingham, campaign director. “We launched a YouTube film about shark finning in November which has been seen by thousands of viewers and encouraged many to join our ‘shark hunt’ campaign.”

Bite Back is supported by well-known chefs and conservationists and has already inspired cash and carry chain Makro to remove blue shark from their stores, persuaded ASDA to stop selling mako and big eye thresher shark, and health food chain Holland and Barrett from selling shark cartilage capsules.  

“We have a history of inspiring restaurants to stop serving shark products and have already persuaded nineteen of them to change their menus, including the only Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in the U.K. The campaign is now gathering steam and the public have helped us to identify more than 70 other restaurants selling shark fin soup.  We will be engaging with these over the next few months, asking them to put conservation before commerce, and identifying food and restaurant critics to help us in this task,” he said.

The question I ask is whether it is the unsupportable practice of finning that drives public demand for a ban on shark products, or if it is concern for the sustainability of the stocks. While some stocks are threatened, others are not, and decisions driven by emotion instead of science can often be unsafe. 

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