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The murky waters of regulating shark finning in Australia

January 7, 2014

By Amy Mitchell-Whittington

A family sits for diner at a well-worn Chinese restaurant in inner-city Brisbane. The room is packed with Saturday night diners, the air filled with the smell of exotic foods. A waiter carefully places a large bowl of shark fin soup in the middle of the table. The eager evening diners close their eyes and inhale the steaming hot aroma of the soup sitting in the middle of the table, the star meal of the night.

“It is a very popular dish,” the waiter explains in broken English.

Once a delicacy reserved for wedding banquets and government receptions, shark fin soup has become a weekend special for a swelling middle class. The restaurant has served shark fin soup for  years and is like thousands of others throughout Australian.

Their every increasing appetite, however, comes at a horrendous cost. It is estimated that well over one hundred million sharks are killed by commercial and recreational fishing every year. Just under one quarter of all shark species currently face a high risk of extinction, driven by the spiralling demand for shark fin and unsustainable fishing methods.

Around one quarter of all shark species are found in Australian waters.

Shark finning in Australia is illegal; however legislation varies between the Commonwealth and some states. For example, in Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victorian legislation, shark fins must be attached to the body of the shark when landed.

In Tasmania, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland waters, fins are able to be detached at sea, so long as fishermen bring back a ratio of shark fin to shark meat.

Leading journal of ocean policy studies, Marine Policy, published a study this year that found that new finning regulations around the globe have done nothing to reduce the volume of fins traded in global and regional markets.

The lack of trade and species specific data on shark fishing has made regulation very difficult.

“To manage sharks in a meaningful way and to interpret what damage shark fishing mortality is having you really need to know what species are being caught and being most effected,” Fisheries management consultant Ms Mary Lack said.

“The data really doesn’t give us a good guide to that,” she said.

Globally, species composition of the shark fin trade has not been assessed for over a decade.

Ms Lack believes the economic value of shark fin is driving up the retainment of sharks that would otherwise have been considered bycatch, that being non-targeted non-retained catch.

Ms Lack says this bycatch is not being well managed in terms of species sustainability compared to shark targeted fisheries.

Commonwealth shark fisheries such as the Gillnet Hook and Trap and the Southern and Eastern Scalefish & Shark fishery target specific species of shark, such as gummy shark which is the primary species used for flake.

These fisheries, due to the commercial value of their target catch, have better management in terms of data collection and stock assessment.

Fisheries such as the Commonwealth trawl sector harvest their sharks primarily as retained bycatch, and lack the ability to manage the variety of shark species caught.

There have been measures put in place to deter the retainment of bycatch, such as catch limits and quotas, although it’s impossible to measure the success of these deterrents because there’s so little data.

One question Ms Lack wants answered is what happens to the sharks that are caught specifically for their fins once they are landed.

“What happens to those carcasses that have been brought is anyone’s guess,” Ms Lack said.

“Some markets have sprung up, but I think it is probably the case that a lot of that meat still gets discarded because there isn’t a market for it.”

Ms Lack says the fins attached policy may be a disincentive to retain sharks specifically for their fins, however market demand is a powerful force.

“I think shark fin demand is largely behind the retention of sharks taken as bycatch,” Ms Lack said.

“If the demand for fins didn’t exist or was lower, there would be less incentive to actually keep those sharks that are taken as bycatch and more incentive to put them back.”

Senior program manager at Humane Society International Alexia Wellbelove says her team has been working with consumers to quell the demand for shark fin in China.

“A lot of groups like us have been working really hard with young couples about to get married to say no to shark fin soup. We are particularly targeting young people, so they can talk about it with their older generations,” Ms Wellbelove said.

Alongside these on-the-ground approaches, other factors are starting to influence the demand for shark fin within China, specifically Beijing.

James Cook University research fellow and  author of Fishing for Fairness Dr Michael Fabinyi has been investigating the current trends of seafood consumption in Beijing and has found a variety of factors are shifting demand away  from shark fin consumption.

“There are a multiple of reasons why there is a decline; the prevalence of fake shark fins on the market, the possible impact of environmentalist campaigns starring famous ex-basketball player Yao Ming and a general feeling that shark fin is not as fashionable as in previous years,” Dr Fabinyi said.

These factors are specific to Beijing and are not necessarily applicable to other cities or other parts of China or other countries where shark fin is still very much in strong demand.

Ms Wellbelove says that the issue of shark finning is not one of race or culture but rather a sustainability and animal welfare issue.

“As global citizens we should be looking after the sharks while they are in our waters and given that the main threat to shark species is the trade in their fins then for us in no way does this become a racial or cultural issue, it is very much a sustainability and animal welfare issue,” she said.

Humane Society International also does a lot of work with educational systems to ensure there is enough emphasis made on sharks’ important contribution to healthy marine ecosystems.

“We work quite a lot with universities and schools to teach them the importance of sharks in the marine ecosystem,” Ms Wellbelove said.

Global shark populations are down and it’s actually damaging marine ecosystems.

Australian Institute of Marine Science researcher Dr Mark Meekan has been looking into this issue in Australian reef systems for over fifteen years, specifically in the reefs off the North West Coast of Australia.

Dr Meekan says the impact of shark fishing in Australian waters is having a detrimental effect.

“What we are seeing is that the loss of sharks in these reefs is having a very fundamental effect on these fishing communities,” Dr Meekan said.

“In places where the shark fishing has been going on, what we find is that most of those shark species are completely absent or one third as present as they should be,” he said.

If you take an apex predator out of an ecosystem, smaller predatory reef fish are more abundant and they eat a lot more of the herbivorous fish that graze on algae.

Dr Meekan says less fish grazing on algae means less ability for live coral to grow, slowing down the regrowth and regeneration of reefs that are already under enough external pressures such as cyclones and bleaching.

The reefs Dr Meekan has been focusing on are currently subjected to Indonesian fishermen, who have been fishing off the North West coast of Australia for centuries.

An agreement Australia made in 1974 with Indonesia allows traditional Indonesian fishermen access to an area called the MOU Box in the Timor Sea, a large area of ocean containing a number of different reefs.

Dr Meekan says this access allows Indonesian fishermen to target shark and other banquet fish to sell to China.

“The fishermen are really just after their fins for shark fin soup and in recognition for a trade that has been going on for centuries, Australia still lets them do that,” Dr Meekan said.

“The reef sharks that are disappearing are disappearing into shark fin soup in China via the Indonesian traditional trade,” he said.

Illegal fishing in Indonesian waters alongside the dwindling supply of sharks in the region drives these fishermen south into Australian waters.

Dr Meekan believes this problem will get worse unless action is taken.

“We are fighting the battle now over sharks and shark finning, but I think the future battles may be over other things like some of the more valuable fish stocks in that region,” Dr Meekan said.

“I think we ignore the situation at our peril and what we need to do is search for some regional based solutions to that problem,” he said.

Director of the Great White Shark Discovery Centre Travis Nottle, situated in Port Lincoln, also believes unsustainable illegal fishing will get worse if something isn’t done now.

“I think that it will be a common occurrence to deal with illegal international fisheries within the next two to three decades, even if it’s not from the Indonesians, it will be from unsustainable fisheries in other regions,” Mr Nottle said.

“We need to collaborate in the international sandpit well with other nations and we actually have to be leaders in driving sustainable awareness to not only the political leadership but to the average person on the street,” he said.

Mr Nottle believes having empathy in such a hot, culturally driven issue is important in working on strategies to end unsustainable and illegal shark fishing.

“Those partaking in unsustainable fishing have other constraints that are driving their behaviours and thoughts and we have to somehow change their perception of what is right, in their world,” he said.

Let’s hope that by the time we are able to change our perceptions there are sharks still left to protect.
Related article on the problems with killing predators

Amy Mitchell-Whittington is a Brisbane based writer who is currently in her final year of journalism at Griffith University.

She completed a Film and Screen Media degree at Griffith in 2007, majoring in cinematography, which led her to work for a multimedia company on the Gold Coast shooting real estate, property and lifestyle videos.

After taking some time to travel around overseas, Amy decided to head back to university to study journalism in 2012, hoping to utilise her camera skills in the ever-changing and dynamic news and media environment.

Her interests lie in conservation, environmental issues, economics and the world at large.

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