Pseudoscience Redux: Shark Fin propaganda

This post was originally published on September 9, 2010 as a part of our first Week of Ocean Pseudoscience. Enjoy!

Last weekend, longtime SFS reader Suzy sent me an interesting question. Suzy is Asian, and though she is a committed conservationist, several members of her family regularly eat shark fin soup. One relative just sent her a copy of a news article entitled “Shark Fin Soup: Eat it without guilt” (available here). Suzy asked me if the information in this article is correct, and how she should respond to her family members.

Though it is a few years old, I had never seen this article, and it’s a little shocking. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better example of distorting or ignoring science to promote a political agenda outside of Fox News. In short, Suzy, most of the information in here is either false or intentionally misleading.

The article is a bizarre mix of irrelevant and out-of-context facts, illogical conclusions from those facts, and paranoid rants.

The author does not deny that shark populations are declining, but instead attempts to blame their decline on every nation except China.

“Sharks are caught in virtually all parts of the world- by fisherman in poor countries and by large fishing fleets from developed countries…The Shark Alliance points out that Spain, Portugal, the UK and France are among the world’s top 10 shark fishing nations that are responsible for 80% of the global catch”

While it certainly true that other countries catch sharks, the overwhelming majority of them sell their catch to China. If there was no demand, these nations wouldn’t need to provide a supply. Most of the demand for sharks is for shark fin soup in China and other Asian nations. You can find that information from the Shark Alliance here, the same source that is being misleadingly used to show that China isn’t a big player in the shark trade.  As the author is quick to point out, a few other nations consume sharks as well (i.e. spiny dogfish for the UK fish and chips market),  but this demand is nothing compared to that from the Chinese shark fin soup market. To claim otherwise requires a near-ridiculous amount of willful ignorance.

There is also an attempt to use the current lack of legal protection for sharks as evidence that they don’t need protection.

“No state has banned shark fishing and only a few have set limits in certain areas.”

“CITES lists only 3 sharks in its appendix II…the remaining 397 species…can be freely traded and caught”

I don’t really feel the need to go into depth on this point. It should be pretty clear that not currently having protection doesn’t mean that protection isn’t needed. That’s why CITES meets regularly. That’s why new species are proposed for Endangered Species Act protection all the time. That’s why fisheries management plans change all the time. Once again, it’s impossible that a trained scientist (which the article’s author is) wouldn’t know this. Also, “over 400” minus 3 does not equal 397.

Shark Fin Soup, image courtesy Jason Robertshaw

The author then claims that there is no targeted shark fin fishery, that finning primarily takes place with already-dead sharks that were victims of bycatch. That is clearly a blatant lie.

“Fins are by-products of the fishing industry. Though they are valuable, sharks are not normally killed for their fins. A fishing fleet specializing in catching sharks only for their fins would quickly go out of business”

“Targeting shark fin soup will not stop this accidental catch. The fins from these catches will be thrown away”

“The practice to salvage and sell the sharks’ fins gives values to discards from the fishing industry”

This is just ridiculous. There are a great many fishing vessels that target sharks for their fins, and many more for whom shark finning makes up a significant proportion of their work. It’s not exactly clear what difference it makes if a fishing vessel focuses entirely on shark finning or if they kill sharks for their fins as a side-business… in both cases, sharks are being killed for their fins in huge numbers. Also, shark fins are, per weight, some of the most valuable products that a fishermen can obtain in the ocean today, so I’m not really sure why specializing in them would result in a fishing vessel going out of business.

Image from Jessica King, Marine Photobank

I’m not exactly sure what “distorted picture” conservationists are painting by showing pictures and video of exactly what is happening, but the author seems to think that live-finning sharks and dumping the rest of the animal overboard to bleed to death or drown is a small component of the shark fin trade. It certainly isn’t the only way that fins come onto the market, but it’s not nearly as rare as this article makes it seem.

Suzy, I apologize for the long post. Let me try and summarize. While shark fin soup has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries, it has only been available to the masses in the last few decades. I don’t need to tell you that there are a lot of people in China, and the increased demand (combined with the global reach of modern fishing fleets) has led to declines in shark populations around the world. One of the most common ways that fins are obtained is cutting the fins of the shark while it is still alive and dumping the rest of the animal overboard to bleed to death or drown. As this article’s author noted, this fishery is very poorly regulated. In short, shark fin soup is supplied by an incredibly wasteful, inhumane, and unsustainable fishery with enormous impacts on the world’s oceans. It’s not an issue of culture and it’s not an issue of shame. Scientific facts,show that this soup is extremely destructive to the environment. I hope this helps.

Image from Nancy Boucha, 2005, Marine Photobank



  1. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

    The problem is it is not ok for them to do it but it is ok for us. The U.S. fins 48 million lbs. of flat cleaner sharks called stingrays or skates killed in the same way. The aquarium industry is killing more sea life in one day than the others do all year. But it is ok for us to have pets or sharks in bowls around the world collected by Dynasty Marine.

    • Ted · October 6, 2011

      “The aquarium industry is killing more sea life in one day than the others do all year.”

      What? Aquariums kill more fish than the FISHING industry? I find that extremely hard to believe. Can you back up this claim?

    • WhySharksMatter · October 6, 2011

      Wow, John, there’s a whole lot of incorrect information in just one quick post. Impressive.

      “The problem is it is not ok for them to do it but it is ok for us.”

      No, no one is saying that. No one has ever said that. What are you talking about?

      “The U.S. fins 48 million lbs. of flat cleaner sharks called stingrays or skates killed in the same way.”

      Fishing for skates is completely unrelated to shark fin soup. Completely unrelated. Why are you talking about skates here? Also, I’m not sure where your numbers come from, but the Northeast skate fishery in the U.S. (not the only, but the largest such fishery in the U.S.) catches about 14,000 metric tons of skates each year. That’s a lot less than 48 million pounds.

      “The aquarium industry is killing more sea life in one day than the others do all year.”

      That’s not remotely correct. Not even close. While some aquarium collectors may accidentally kill animals while collecting, the problem isn’t even close to the same scale as industrial overfishing.

      “Cites is owned by fish & wildlife. They make more money off fish and wildlife than anyone!”

      No, CITES does not make money from selling fish and wildlife. CITES does not make money at all.

      Before you go on angry rants, please check to make sure that your facts are at least remotely rooted in reality.

  2. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

    Cites is owned by fish & wildlife. They make more money off fish and wildlife than anyone!

  3. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011​oral.htm
    The world’s oceans are going extinct the scientist are telling us. But yet America is building more sea prison killing machines called “Aquariums” that hide under the words “conservation”…which means…to protect something from change…Funding! And “education” …which means…to teach our own children how to kill for money by showing them what will soon be gone in the world’s seas because of the “Aquarium Industry” Which has 2 to 3 Billion sea creatures in it’s “pipeline” at any given time responsible for the death of 100 Million(and Trillions of their unborn babies) A DAY! Some conservation? Our hearts are in the right place…but their beating to the wrong drum.

    • WhySharksMatter · October 6, 2011

      Did you know that stupid comments that aren’t based on facts kill one gazillion puppies every second?

      See? I can make up stuff that sounds scary, too!

    • John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

      Did you read the article? Can you put away your 40 year old school just for a second to see the truth right in front of you?

    • WhySharksMatter · October 6, 2011

      I wrote about the proposed skate fishery increase- and how I oppose it- here:

      It doesn’t change the fact that skate fishing has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO with shark fin soup. It feeds a completely separate market- lobster bait and European seafood restaurants. You are, again, completely wrong.

  4. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

    100 Million sea creatures die everyday in the aquarium industry and so do their trillions of unborn babies never given the tiny chance to be. Mass extinction on a global scale the scientists call it, profit it’s called by others, needless death is what it really is. Generational genocide is a profitable extinction that we have NO right to impose on any other life form for our pleasure.
    Whales, dolphins and shark fin soup are important but so are the rest of the forgotten just as important and number far more than even we can imagine.

  5. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011
    Skate do count as sharks and have everything to do with the issue.

    • WhySharksMatter · October 6, 2011

      No, skates are not sharks. They are related but are not the same. The skate fishery is completely unrelated to shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is made from- gasp- shark fins. Skate wings are used for lobster bait and a European market that eats ’em as delicacies. As usual, you’re completely wrong. Not a little wrong, not a “difference of opinion”. You’re completely, 100%, objectively, demonstrably wrong.

    • John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

      Your wrong…killing is killing no matter what line you would like to draw to make it ok for you but not them. Hypocrites!

  6. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

    How much do Cites permits cost? How much does fish and wildlife make a year off the industry as a whole?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 6, 2011

      Hi John,

      It’s cute that you want to hijack this thread for you own agenda, but this post is about propaganda associated with shark fin soup. Derailing a discussion with made up numbers (you could at least be consistent with your fake stats) and personal, unrelated, agenda, is cheap and tacky. I don’t have the time to moderate every whinger who thinks that their cause is so important they can derail whatever discussion they like. You comments are now being held for moderation.

  7. John Lovewell · October 6, 2011

    A free mother coral is ripped from it’s home, in a far away land, by a local reaper, sold to a wholesaler for it’s weight in rock, transformed into a hard coral regulated by C.I.T.I.E.S., owned by fish and wildlife, broke into pieces on Monday, sold on reef central for it’s weight in gold by Wednesday and dead by Friday, talk about a free for all. C.I.T.I.E.S. / fish and wildlife make money on fish & wildlife, at least the ones they can get their hands on, some corals are allowed to be secretly brought into the country as a little chip worth it’s weight in diamonds, grown out and sold on reef central by the very coral poachers that CLAIM they are saving the reefs by stealing rare pieces of the coral reefs and selling them as “exclusive”, tailored made, rare corals with somebody else’s name for $2000 a chip. Like I said “worth it’s weight in diamonds”. Although fish and wildlife have known about it for years, the in- your- face online coral poaching goes merrily on.

  8. WhySharksMatter · October 6, 2011

    Ignorant, idiotic rants do not help the conservation movement, they just make people think that anyone who cares about the environment is as stupid and uninformed as you are. Please either take the time to learn a little bit about the topics that you are screaming about, or go away. Preferably both.

  9. Gareth · October 6, 2011

    Lovewell – I challenge you to back up that stupendous claim that aquariums are responsible for the death of 100million sea creatures every day. The challenge is simple – post some data with the source reference that backs up your words.

    Step up, or step down mate.

  10. Gareth · October 6, 2011

    We’re waiting John…..

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 6, 2011

      He won’t be posting here about anything related to the aquarium trade, as this post is about propaganda associated with shark fin soup. Please don’t feed the trolls and don’t continue to derail this thread.

  11. Eric · October 6, 2011

    Wow that article is a pretty good boilerplate for misinformation, spin and propaganda. Hand waving, over generalization, gross distortion of facts, extending limited scope/scale results to global scales.

    I love how he makes it so that Chinese culture is a victim. Indeed I’m sure many feel this is an attack on the culture as a whole. I personally don’t feel that the culture is shameful at all. It’s simply that one practice of the culture has become utterly unsustainable. It may once have been, but no longer. What makes it “our business” and why conservationists etc are up “in arms” it is not only affecting that culture’s resources, it is significantly impacting the global ecosystem and resources. Many cultures change, adapt to new realities, sometimes because tastes (fashion etc) change, sometimes because it becomes clear that something is unsustainable.

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