George Burgess Talks About Shark Finning and Conservation

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.

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

important was that study Shelley Clarke wrote?

was an excellent paper. She was able to get some quantification and provide a
nicely calculated estimate of how many sharks were dying in fisheries. That was
very valuable, because as far as conservation goes, we now have a number we can
pin our hats on. Before that, there was an estimate of about 40 to 50 million
based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, but other people had said 100
million, which was supposed to be sharks and rays, not just sharks. But other
people started using it as just sharks.

Why was Clarke's paper the last time a global assessment of the catch was done using shark fins?
The amount of time to
gather the data and ability to penetrate the very secret world of fin
buyers makes this likely a once-in-a-lifetime study. It would be like
trying to get documentation
of the world heroin or cocaine trade by monitoring buyers and sellers. Shelley was able to pull it off because she speaks fluent Chinese (and
Japanese if I recall correctly) and spent a lot of time in Hong Kong,
the major center of trade. This study represented
her Ph.D. dissertation and she probably devoted 10 years of her life to
the project from start to finish.

Shelley Clarke on shark finning.

shark finning the number one conservation issue concerning sharks?

sharks are most valuable not for their meat, but for the fins. In most
areas of the world outside of the United States, shark represents a big chunk
of flesh. It’s a valued commodity since people consume it to get protein, but
here in the United States, shark is considered second class and there’s not a
huge market for it.The
world fisheries where sharks are getting nailed the hardest are the offshore
longline fisheries aimed at tuna and swordfish, both of which are high-end
products in terms of value. The fishing is occurring in international waters
outside of national controls, and the factory ships only have so much space in
the freezers for their valued products—that’s tuna and swordfish. They don’t
have room for sharks, which have less value. Under those circumstances,
historically, most of those vessels would take the fins off of the shark and
save them because they are of great economic value. Here in the U.S., fins
coming right off the boat cost $20 to $30 a pound. They’re very, very valuable.
They don’t have to go into freezers. All they have to do is throw them on the
side of the deck because they’re dried. It doesn’t matter how you treat them.
That’s what happened.

longline is essentially a miles-long fishing line with thousands of hooks
attached. The sharks might be alive or dead when they came to the boat. The
process of finning, for context, is when somebody takes the fins off a live
shark, and throws the still-live animal back into the sea minus the fins. It’s
a wasteful process because the flesh is just discarded. Obviously, there are
also the moral consequences of essentially sending an animal back to its death.
The taking of just fins off of an already dead shark constitutes a wasteful
practice in which only part of the animal is harvested. That’s a different
consequence. It’s not good. There’s shark mortality involved. But it’s not
finning. The consequence of all of this is that the value of fins serves as the
economic motivator for capturing sharks.

the world fisheries where sharks are targeted, the fins represent the most
valuable part of the animal. In other areas, the flesh obviously is eaten, and
comes to shore to serve a nobler purpose. So there’s the shark fin economics,
which is what Shelley was referring to in her dissertation, and that tells us
how many fins are being sent in, and how many animals have given up their lives,
one way or the other. It does not refer only to the inhumane practice of taking
the fins off of live animals. In many areas of the world, the process of
finning, which involves the inhumane death, is illegal. Certainly in U.S.
waters, and in many other waters around the world, you have to bring in the
appropriate number of carcasses with the appropriate number of fins, and if you
don’t, then you will be prosecuted for finning. Unfortunately, in the
international waters we’re dealing with different sets of standards and
definitely different sets of policing. But the wasteful practice of only taking
fins off of dead animals and the inhumane process of taking fins off of live
animals still does occur at some level. 

E.U. just made it illegal to take the fins off without the body?

they have, and they’re only about 20 years late in doing so, but it is a very
positive step. I send kudos out to all of the folks who for years have been
trying to make that happen. Obviously the E.U. has historically important fishing
fleets; the Spanish and Portuguese fleets go well outside of their waters to
fish internationally. Having that as part of the E.U. standards is a very
positive step forward and we definitely applaud their steps to do so. And
hopefully other countries and regions in the world will follow their lead. 

terms of helping to conserve sharks, what’s the next biggest law that could be

I think we’re going to have to do the same thing with sharks that we’re doing
with tunas and swordfish, which is to have international cooperation in
limiting the catches based on scientific evidence. We need to do proper fishery
management on these animals. Sharks can still be captured in a sustainable way,
but it has to be done carefully. Each kind of animal has it’s own biological
characteristics which allow for fishery management and conservation. Sharks
have unique biological characteristics, which include living a long time, reaching
sexual maturity at an older age, and then having limited reproductive
capacity—they have fewer young than other fishes. The result is that recovery
for sharks is much slower than it is for an animal that puts out thousands of
eggs and sperm into the environment that makes thousands of larvae. So each
animal has to be managed appropriate to their biology, and we’re happy to deal
sharks into the management milieu, along with the tuna and swordfish that we’re
working on through cooperative international agreements.

tuna and swordfish the only species with major international regulation?

are the main two. There are some regulations for important coastal migratory
species, for example salmon. There’s international cooperation between the
United States and Canada. But realistically, tuna and swordfish are about it in
terms of real international agreements. And not surprisingly, that’s because
they are the aces of the marine world in terms of their price and value. If
sharks had the same value for the last three or four decades, we probably
wouldn’t be having this conversation. They’d have already been dealt in. They
are newcomers to the equation in terms of their economic value, and frankly,
they probably wouldn’t even be discussed at all if they didn’t have fins.

This is the third in a series of articles and interviews about sharks.
Part 1: Surviving a Great White Shark Attack
Part 2: George Burgess on the Science of Shark Attacks

—Joe Spring