Fifty-four requiem shark and six hammerhead shark species were on Thursday given protection status under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
Many marine conservationists hailed the decision, announced at the World Wildlife Conference in Panama City, as a “landmark” for shark conservation and the health of the oceans, saying that two-thirds of shark fins traded worldwide are from sharks of the two families, trade that has pushed some of them to the brink of extinction.
Protection under the convention means that shark fin exporters would need government-issued permits, for which they would need to prove the origin of the fins, and that the sharks were caught legally and in adherence to sustainability standards that seek to ensure the survival of the species in the wild.
Most sharks are apex predators and play an important role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. However, global shark populations have declined more than 70 percent over the past 50 years, and about 73 million to 100 million sharks are killed worldwide every year, mostly for shark fin soup, a delicacy in East Asia. About 40,000 tonnes of shark are caught off Taiwan every year, and an International Fund for Animal Welfare report in February said that more than half of the global shark fin trade takes place in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Taiwan in 2013 enacted a law that bans shark “finning” — removing the fins and discarding the shark, often still alive at the time, but unable to survive, back into the ocean — and the Council of Agriculture last year raised the penalty for finning stipulated in the Act for Distant Water Fisheries (遠洋漁業條例).
However, shark finning is still practiced, with many reports filed each year. In October 2015, the European Commission issued a “yellow card” warning to Taiwan, saying that the nation’s fisheries management does not comply with international standards and does not sufficiently cooperate on efforts to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Taiwan was removed from the list in July 2019.
However, in late November last year, Shark Guardian, a British charity involved in conservation projects worldwide, released a report titled “Endangered Sharks for Sale: Taiwan’s Dirty Secret,” saying an investigation from December 2020 to March last year found that seven of 13 surveyed shark fin processing companies traded fins of protected species. The report also documented their sale at a market in southern Taiwan and online.
The council in December last year said it had since 2013 inspected 6,414 shark fishing vessels, but only found 62 breaches of the act and issued fines totaling NT$94.06 million (US$3.02 million). It also said that the shark trading convention regulates international trade, but not domestic sales.
Independent online news outlet The Reporter last year cited a ship owner as saying that his operation is just an “ant” in comparison with the “large dragons” who illegally catch sharks and are rarely held accountable.
A 2020 report by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation said that about 50 percent of workers on Taiwan-flagged shark fishing vessels admitted their boats engage in shark finning. Shark Guardian and The Reporter also cited workers at shark processing companies as saying that they do not differentiate between legally and illegally caught animals.
Despite not having signed the convention, Taiwan should see the “landmark decision” as a wake-up call to rein in illegal shark fishing. As long as illegal fishing remains prevalent, Taiwanese should categorially say “no” to shark fin soup whenever it is on the menu.
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