The UK has exported more than 50 tonnes of shark fins in the past two and a half years, leading to fears the country is feeding a controversial global trade.
HM Revenue and Customs data analysed by Unearthed reveals hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of shark fin exports since the start of 2017, with the vast majority of those going to Spain.
Spain is itself one of the world’s biggest shark fin exporters, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, supplying countries in Asia where shark fin soup is considered a delicacy.
According to an Unearthed analysis, the UK sent almost 12 tonnes of shark fins, worth £92,000, to Spain in the first five months of this year. In 2018, the UK exported 29.7 tonnes of fresh shark fins, worth £216,000, mainly to Spain.In the previous year the UK exported a little over 10 tonnes.
Last year, the skipper of an Irish fishing boat was charged with shark finning after regulators found his Spanish-registered ship filled with blue shark fins.
The UK government says it is “strongly opposed” to shark finning and previously successfully pushed the EU to ban the practice of fishermen cutting the fins from sharks at sea, before dumping their bodies back in the water to die.
Now EU rules state sharks can only have their fins removed once they have been landed. However, it is not illegal to buy or sell certain types of shark fin in the UK, so long as traders adhere to regulations.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Unearthed: “While we’re a member of the EU it is not possible to introduce additional restrictions on shark-fin trade, but leaving the EU will give us an opportunity to consider further controls.”
Despite high-profile campaigns backed by celebrities Jackie Chan and David Beckham to stop people eating shark fin, demand for the luxury food remains high in east Asia. Conservation organisation WildAid estimate that finning could wipe out an estimated 73 million sharks every year.
Canada recently became the first country in the G7 to stop imports of shark fins, after finning in its own waters was banned in 1994.
Environmental groups are worried that current EU rules do not do enough to prevent shark finning. They called for regulations to be tightened and for the introduction of catch limits for sharks that are based on scientific advice.
At a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICAAT) last November, NGOs including the Shark Trust and WWF called on these measures to be introduced to prevent overfishing of mako and blue sharks. These two species are considered to be “threatened” and “vulnerable”, respectively, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
As many as 32 species of shark can be found in UK waters, according to the Shark Trust. These include some rare and protected species like porbeagle sharks, listed as critically endangered in parts of the Atlantic Ocean by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and blue sharks – the most widely-fished species of open ocean sharks – which are listed as “near threatened.”
While the HMRC data does not detail the species of the shark fins exported, Unearthed understands that sharks need to be more than 4ft long for their fins to have any real value, ruling out smaller and more-common species found in British waters like black dogfish.
Graham Buckingham a campaign director at shark and marine conservation charity Bite-Back, told Unearthed: “The sheer volume of shark fins being exported by the UK is a shocking indication that global demand for shark fin soup remains high and that sharks are paying the price. When you consider that Spain, France, Portugal and Britain feature in the top 25 shark fishing nations in the world it’s clear that European fishing fleets are making the most of the fact that there are still no catch limits for blue, mako and tope sharks.”
In addition to their vital role in ecosystems, sharks play an important role in mitigating climate change. Researchers at Bournemouth University found in 2016 that poor management of the oceans, specifically through overfishing and practises like shark finning, could have negative consequences for the global climate. They found that the removal of top predators, including sharks, from marine ecosystems results in higher biomass of prey animals and, consequently, increased CO2 levels.