Most times, regulation and protection cannot occur without volumes of data over years proving that it is required. Otherwise, the parties lobbying the hardest, like the commercial fishing fleets, can place enough doubt in politicians minds that passing prohibitive legislation is nearly impossible. Sadly, it is usually a scenario of “prove it” with the burden on the “conservationists” when it comes to protecting species.
Data for sharks is sorely lacking. Until the last few decades or so, the economic value of sharks was low, and thus, there was little incentive for governments to use precious funding resources monitoring shark populations. Consequently, there is very little global baseline information available on the number of sharks deliberately fished, the state of shark populations and the decline rates over time, the number caught incidentally, the individual species that are most heavily targeted, or the even volume of international trade and consumption of shark products.
One of the biggest issues is the lack of species-specific and size-specific catch and discard data. In addition, once a shark fin is detached from the shark and dried, it is difficult to identify the shark species that was the source of the fin. As a result, it is almost impossible to track which species are being killed.
It is also very difficult to assess shark populations because of the lack of knowledge about critical habitat areas for open ocean sharks and the absence of accurate population monitoring, particularly in international waters. Commonly, fishermen can deplete an entire local population before scientists are even able to perform baseline population studies.
Although the UN FAO attempts to gather shark catch data from around the world, most countries do not supply it – and those that do provide data that seems questionable. In many countries, shark landings are reported inconsistently and voluntarily – originating from unreliable logbooks or third-party observer data. And, since at least 30 – 50% of shark fishing and finning is done illegally, none of these figures are reported or tracked.
The gathering of shark trade
data is also problematic. Hong Kong, the epicenter for the shark fin trade serves as a clearinghouse for shark fins worldwide. The fins are exported without logging countries of origin. Enormous discrepancies also exist between import and export logs between countries. For instance, in the U.S., shark fin imports are recorded but shark fin exports are not. Of course, this is all further hampered by the fact that much of the shark fin that ends up in the consumer market was smuggled and/or traded on the black market first. Research indicates that the fins of up to 73 million sharks move through the shark fin market of Hong Kong each year, whereas countries report to the UN only a fraction of that.
While we know it is happening and we can point to countless scientific studies, we are still struggling with the burden of proof to protect sharks. And let’s not forget – protection without enforcement means the laws are useless.