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Sharks in soup

Jun 30, 2011 | From the print edition

India goes against world in not banning shark fin trade

Divya KarnadGeorge and Aruldas, fishermen from near Kanyakumari, were hauling up a catch on a beach in southern Tamil Nadu. It was a warm evening and they were the only fishers on these secluded sands. The catch was special and I was privileged, as an outsider, to be invited to watch as the enormous fish was sliced and its fin, the most valuable part, handled with extreme care.

Shark fins of this size fetch a lot of money. It is not a hammerhead, which brings the best price, but a smaller milk shark. Nevertheless, the fishers told me, there were several more where this one came from, and they could be caught easily using their specialised hooks and lines. The shark’s flesh was set aside; all attention was on preserving the fin well. After all, the flesh was for their consumption while the fin would soon be exported to Southeast Asian markets.

Shark fins reportedly sell for Rs 250-400 per kg in the wholesale market and there are regular dealers in the country. As the capture and finning of sharks is not banned in India, the practice, shunned as illegal in several other countries, occurs in broad daylight here. A friend recently reported seeing an autorickshaw stuffed with shark fins to the point where it could barely be seen, on a busy Puducherry street. Over 90 per cent of the 190 fishers I spoke to during a survey in southern Tamil Nadu, admitted to catching and selling sharks. The fins they sold would reach the final destination, China, through many pathways. Some would pass through Sri Lanka, others through Singapore or Thailand, while still others were sold directly.

Southeast Asian shark fishers often remove the uppermost, characteristic shark fin and release the animal back into the sea. Unable to swim or breathe, the helpless animal dies. India responded to this by introducing a ban, but due to vociferous protests from Tamil Nadu fishers, the then minister of environment and forests (MoEF), A Raja, partially revoked the ban in 2001. Strangely, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute recommended there was scope to increase the exploitation of sharks in Indian waters, despite no studies on its stock.

Meanwhile, shark fishing continues unchecked. Fishers in the Lakshadweep who use long-lines do not always target sharks, but do not hesitate to use the extra source of income that accompanies their mistaken hooking. A source in the Lakshadweep fishery department revealed there was a recent shark fin catch weighing several tonnes from a vessel. This means several thousand sharks are killed and discarded or consumed. On the mainland, shark numbers no longer allow for such blatant extermination. The fishers I spoke to felt that shark numbers, like all the other fish they catch, were on the decline.

The picture is grim, but the Centre seems unwilling to take a stand. The Action Forum for Sustainable Shark Fishery that supports a ban on finning raises some important points. The government has no idea about how to replenish shark stocks. Since there is no enforcement, the forum argues, any attempt to conserve sharks turns futile. In a country where 60,000-70,000 tonnes of sharks are landed every year (as per FAO), choosing to overlook this industry that leaves no paper trail and operates on an apparently “small” scale, is a mistake.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the use of unsustainable gears such as trawl nets has only served to further marginalise artisanal fishers, who use selective gears. They are now forced to look at easy ways to earn money, such as by selling shark fins.

The government and its people must realise that sharks are inextricably linked to the marine world. There is no way to save them without saving their prey, and there is no way to prevent the fishing of one species while allowing indiscriminate gears to pick off anything that comes in their path. The Fisheries Department and MoEF must act together if they want to ensure a livelihood for fishers and a future for sharks.

Divya Karnad is a wildlife biologist with the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru




This article is a welcome insight into a serious issue that has just been sidelined. I didn't know that killing sharks was such a serious issue. It is blatantly sold everywhere... The consumers and government should actively save sharks

16 June 2011
Posted by

I hope that this article, as well as the scientific surveys being conducted on the field by the author and her team - will lead to a substantial push in regulating shark fin trade in our country.

17 June 2011
Posted by

What is the government doing about this? Why isn't there a system in place. We definitely need more eye-opening articles like this!

18 June 2011
Posted by

A great peek into an overlooked subject. China should stop fuelling such trade in wildlife products such as tigers and shark fins!

18 June 2011
Posted by

Why the then minister of environment and forests (MoEF), A Raja, partially revoked the ban in 2001?: I can smell some malpractice in it and ban should be restored at once, matter be given to CBI for further investigation.

19 June 2011
Posted by
Naresh Kadyan

Who is responsible? How will they be held accountable? There should be someway to stop the Chinese from buying fins.

20 June 2011
Posted by

So if we stop them from catching sharks, how are fishermen supposed to make ends meet?

20 June 2011
Posted by

Shark finning operates everywhere, not just in the mainland. Thai and Burmese poachers keep catching sharks in the Andamans and Nicobars. There is no one to prevent them coming into Indian waters, forget enforcing shark bans

20 June 2011
Posted by

The issue was raised at my place but the Hotel concerned said they have got imported cans/packs of soup. Kindly enlighten, if it is illegal ?

20 June 2011
Posted by
Dr Sandeep K Jain

People just see the money the shark fins brings in, but sharks are much more worth alive than dead (divers travel far distances just to be sure to ezncounter sharks !). But also sharks are top predators in the ocean, they keep the eco system healthy, we need them in our oceans ! There must be more substainable ways to earn money !

20 June 2011
Posted by

There are many other lucrative activities that could bring Indian fishermen a comfortable income, contribute to helping marine environments and help sharks.
Coral farming, seaweed culture & harvest, pearl culture are all alternative activities.
India has some wonderful underwater sites, yet a practically inexistant diving industry. Divers pay huge sums to be able to dive with sharks and require accomodation and other annexed services which, when employing local people, generate resources.
When the Indian shark population has been totally removed, and when their slow rate of reproduction is measured against the rate they are being fished (including juveniles) their disappearance is certain- what will the local people live off?

8 July 2011
Posted by
Julie Wright

The world is going to lose a vital part of it's eco system to meet the demands for a posh soup for China's new middle class and rich, I make no apology for my art....http://www.seawitchartist.com/shark-fin-soup.htm

8 July 2011
Posted by

Start a rumor that Shark Fins make male genitalia smaller....

Dumb people actually believe that a sharks fin is an aphrodisiac? Silly people.

9 July 2011
Posted by

This is going to be a bad practice by the Indian fishermen. Of course, sharks do attack humans but like any predator they do so only when they hunt and need to satisfy hunger. This unchecked finning will disturb the natural balance. Keep up the move!

30 October 2013
Posted by

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