Shark fins. Photo: Elira/Shutterstock
In 2000, a graduate student at the Imperial College of London named Shelley Clarke began using shark fin data from the auction houses of Hong Kong and the ports of Taiwan to estimate how many sharks, and what species, were heading off for sale at the world’s biggest market. She used her data to estimate a global take of 38 million sharks a year—though she said that that number could be as low as 26 million and as high as 73 million.
Her paper was important in that it provided the first scientific estimate for the number of sharks being traded based on the take of fins, offering scientists and fisheries managers a number for the global shark trade they could rely on. Though people in many countries eat shark flesh, fins are the most valuable part of the fish. As a result, fins made it to market, while bodies often didn’t. Some fishermen sliced the fins off and let the live sharks drown. Others took the fins off dead sharks, but with no set rules in place, there was no way to tell. As a result, many countries have now required shark fins to be taken ashore with the corresponding body. Most recently, the European Union ruled that fishermen must take the fins and the body to dock.
There are 471 species of sharks in the world, and scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have categorized at least 73 of them as threatened. The truth is, scientists know very little about almost half of those species—212 shark species are categorized as data deficient. To find out more about the conservation status of sharks and finning, we talked to George Burgess, a vice chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group.