It's a form of fishing intended to satisfy the Asian market for shark fin soup (Hong Kong accounts for 70% of this market) and chinese medicine. Once hooked, the shark is roughly dragged onto the fishing boat, the dorsal, pectoral and tail fins are sliced off, and the rest of the body is thrown back into the sea. If the shark doesn't get tangled up and drown (sharks need to keep moving to allow water to pass over their gills so they can take oxygen from the water) it is butchered alive, and it normally takes hours or even days for the shark to die. Sharks are not fished for around Koh Tao, but this is a global issue that we should all know more about.
Often served at weddings and other formal banquets in Asia, shark fin soup is a delicacy and an indication of status. Shark fin is tasteless, all the flavour of the soup coming from the chicken or fish stock base. For centuries this dish has been served to royalty, but in the last twenty years it has become popular with the masses. It's an expensive dish. It may also be dangerous - mercury poisoning from industrial waste is common in sharks, and that mercury is passed on to people eating the fins. Mercury never leaves your body, it simply builds up, and at toxic levels causes insanity and death.
Sharks are considered healthy creatures - many maladies that affect man don't affect sharks. It's not really surprising as we have massively different physiologies. This has given rise to the belief in Asian cultures that eating shark flesh heals you and prevents sickness such as cancer (which, incidentally, sharks also suffer from). It has been clinically proven that shark fins contain no medicinally beneficial compounds, and there is no evidence of anyone ever having been helped by consuming shark fin.
Shark fins are in massive demand to supply these huge markets, and they are an extremely valuable catch. One boat trip can result in a catch of hundreds of shark fins, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The profits that can be gained from shark finning are matched only by drug trafficking.
Well, aside from the barbarous manner in which shark finning is done, it's done in massive numbers. At present, it is reported that approximately 100 million sharks are being killed for this market each year. However, this is just a conservative estimate and it is thought that the true number could be over 270 million! Pause for a moment and think about that number - 270 million sharks a year. It's enormous, it's growing, and it's not sustainable.
We have already lost 90% of the world's population of sharks. Sharks are tertiary consumers in our oceans - the top carnivores. They have been around for over 400 million years, longer than any other creature that has jaws, and so it's reasonable to assume they have a vital role in global eco-systems. We know so little about life in the sea that we don't know for sure just what impact this reduction will have, and the rate of reduction is growing.
What we do know is that everything is in balance. Sharks eat a lot of fish, maintaining the balance of fish populations. Fewer sharks means more fish. More fish means creatures lower down the food chain are consumed in much larger numbers. Amongst these creatures are oxygen producing plankton and algae: tiny lifeforms that consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen as a byproduct. Twenty years ago, there was an outcry at the loss of rain forests, the so-called "lungs of the earth", and tree management the world over is now being managed thoughtfully. The reality is that rainforests produce approximately 3% of the world's oxygen, and more than 70% comes from the sea. If the sea's oxygen producers go into decline, the likely result is the slow death of the entire planet. This isn't sensationalism, it's a genuine risk, and the way we prevent it is to stop shark finning now.
Shark finning is now regulated in 22 countries/regions; that still leaves a large portion of the planet where it continues unabated. Unfortunately, a near unlimited budget and corrupt authorities means that it also continues in countries where it is regulated. The industry appears to be largely controlled by organized crime syndicates with ties to Asia.
We recommend the following sites for more information:
For some readers, these events will seem to be a long way from home and nothing to do with you. Please, reconsider. The survival of the atmosphere and therefore all life on earth is inextricably linked to a balanced ecology in our oceans, and this is under greater threat now than it ever has been. It does affect you, and will certainly affect your children if it doesn't stop now.