If you were a kid in the 1970s, you undoubtedly were at least a little terrified of going into the ocean – a fear placed squarely in your subconscious by the Jaws movies. But, according to the International Shark Attack File, there are only around 72 unprovoked shark attacks around the world per year, a relatively small amount given the many sleepless nights and swimming phobias arising from a fear of sharks. The far scarier reality is that the much-demonized shark has long been under attack itself from its greatest predator: us. Humans kill well over 100 million sharks in any given year. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Mongabay reporter, Philip Jacobson, to learn about the illegal shark-finning practices of one Chinese-based fishing company, why he believes this practice is far from unique, and what efforts are being taken to save this important apex predator.
00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:22 Philip Jacobson (PJ) – You know one of the policies that are put in place to combat shark finning. It’s not necessarily banning the trade, but you tell boats, OK, you can’t just keep the fin and throw the body away you have to keep the whole shark.
00:37 Alex Wise (AW) – If you were a kid in the 1970s, you undoubtedly were at least a little terrified of going into the ocean – a fear placed squarely in your subconscious by the Jaws movies. But, according to the International Shark Attack File, there are only around 72 unprovoked shark attacks around the world per year, a relatively small amount given the many sleepless nights and swimming phobias arising from a fear of sharks. The far scarier reality is that the much-demonized shark has long been under attack itself from its greatest predator: us. Humans kill well over 100 million sharks in any given year. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Mongabay reporter, Philip Jacobson, to learn about the illegal shark-finning practices of one Chinese-based fishing company, why he believes this practice is far from unique, and what efforts are being taken to save this important apex predator.
01:48 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Philip Jacobson. He is a journalist for Mongabay and he’s based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Phil, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
01:57 Philip Jacobson (PJ) – Hi Alex, thanks for having me on the show, it’s great to be here.
02:00 AW – Well, it’s a pleasure to have you been reading your work? You’ve done a lot of investigative work into the shark finning practice that is running rampant across the Asian seafood marketplace. First, why don’t you explain why sharks are being hunted and why the sharkfin has become this, almost an outlier in how we process seafood. This is not like just catching tuna. It seems very wasteful and a dangerous precedent.
02:33 PJ – Sure, so shark fins are eaten as part of shark fin soup, which is a delicacy in parts of Asia, especially East Asia. It’s been a pretty big industry for the past several decades, especially as China’s middle class kind of exploded grew a lot in 80s nineties, 2000s, and that created a lot of new demand for shark fins. Soup used to be served at weddings. Plot and official functions in China. So there’s been some effort to kind of crack down on it in recent years by the Chinese government. They’ve banned it at official government functions, for example. Just because you know of the trouble that sharks are in from a conservation perspective, many shark populations going extinct because of the demands, especially for their fins. Nowadays, sharks are being hunted more and more for their meat, which is also eaten, but I guess that’s another story – I published recently with Manga Bay focused on a shark finning operation that was taking place across the fleet of a a major tuna fishing company, a Chinese company.
03:51 AW – Yes, and I I wanted to ask you about that because in the in the piece you say how this Dalian Ocean Fishing fleet, it’s 35 boats that are doing long line fishing, ostensibly for tuna, but are actually as your investigation uncovers, or reveals that they’re actually dipping their hooks into both waters. They’re fishing, not only for tuna, but also for shark, but just chopping off the fins and then wasting 9095% of the shark and throwing those carcasses away. So I wasn’t sure. The meat is used at some point in the industry, but this Dalian Ocean fishing company is not or is that an industry practice to just throw away most of the fish?
04:40 PJ – No, that’s right. Shark finning as you described, which is when you slice off the fins and discard the rest of the body. That’s illegal pretty much anywhere pretty much everywhere, although it it does happen. But yeah, this company Dalian Ocean Fishing it presents itself to the world as a tuna company. It’s claimed to be China’s biggest supplier of sashimi grade tuna to Japan. It was founded about 20 years ago at a time where Chinas’s distant water fishing industry was really taking off distant water, fishing in the high seas, which is like international waters. So yeah, so this company Dalian Ocean fishing, they present themselves as a tuna fishing company. But what we found from talking to lots of their former workers was that their boats were also deliberately. Catching really huge numbers of shark in the Pacific Atlantic, Indian Oceans and not only were they catching the shark, they were they. Were fanning the sharks so. Just taking the fins and throwing the body overboard.
05:56 AW – And that’s a fairly egregious practice on, in and of itself, but that’s not industry standard in terms of shark fishing to are there some shark fishing operations that don’t just fin, they’re actually harvesting the meat as well?
06:10 PJ – Yeah, yeah there are. It’s not illegal to catch sharks necessarily. You know it happens all over the world, but it is illegal to fence sharks pretty much everywhere. So yeah, there’s a there’s a huge shark meat trade and and you can legally harvest fins if you take the whole body. But the reason why some captains do Fin sharks is because they have the fins are the most. Valuable part of the shark.
06:35 AW – By far, right?
06:36 PJ – By far yeah, yeah, and the boats have limited storage space. So by just taking the fins they can take more fins and kind of maximize their profits, which can be important in the fishing industry because the margins can often be really thin.
06:53 AW – When you talk about this Dalian Ocean Fishing Company being at the forefront of high grade tuna, I mean, that’s a huge profit margin as well. I’m surprised that that’s not enough, but anybody who’s been to a very high end sushi place, or if you’ve been to like ski market in Tokyo. You realize how incredibly valuable high grade tuna is.
07:19 PJ – Yeah, it’s true. It’s a good point and that was one of the questions that was raised by our reporting was who was really organizing this illegal shark operation? And there’s a question of kind of how high up in the company’s corporate hierarchy. The impetus for this scheme goes. So was it just the captains who were doing this on their own, or you know, or were the executives kind of in on it? That’s an unanswered question here, although. The reporting does indicate that there was at least some measure of organization among the captains themselves. And you can tell that by the fact that they were moving the sacks of dried shark fit from one boat to another at sea, and presumably so that a boat that was heading back to shore to mainland China could bring the fence back on behalf of the other captains, and presumably they would. Be sold there on land.
08:24 AW – So you talk about in the piece which will link to it Sea Change Radio. How many sharks are killed a year? I think it’s in the over 100 million, is that correct?
08:34 PJ – Yeah, scientists say that humans kill around 100 million sharks per year, and I’ve even talked to people who say that that could be a huge under.
08:44 AW – And when I was a child in the 70s, Jaws was the big movie and we had really there was a decade plus era of demonizing sharks. My generation was very afraid of them when we went into the ocean. I remember thinking as like a 9 or 10 year old well, why don’t they just kill all the sharks? Can you explain why the devastation of an apex predator? Why it has such a harsh impact on an entire ecosystem? Why it’s not just sharks that are being affected when we kill sharks?
09:17 PJ – Sure, yes, as you say sharks are they are an apex predator so they eat certain kinds of animals that then eat another kind of animal that they need another kind of animal that they need another kind of animal, and on and on and on in this incredibly complex web of interactions, and you know, if you take out one link in that chain. Then it throws the whole system. Out of whack so, for example, if there is a certain kind of fish and there’s you know a school of these fish, sharks will prey on the fish that they can catch and the ones that they’ll prey on will tend to be the weakest ones. So they’re kind of culling the weaker ones, which may be weaker for genetic reasons and then that will keep the fish population stronger because the weakest members of the school are we’ll kind of get eaten, and but it’s actually good for the fish because it keeps their keeps their numbers stronger.
10:23 (Music Break)
11:35 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to journalist Philip Jacobson, so Phil, it sounded to me from the article that some of these deckhands didn’t necessarily know that the shark finning practice was illegal, that they realized something was up when their photos were being confiscated. Is that accurate?
11:56 PJ – Yeah, so when we talked to these guys and we were asking them all about the labor conditions and the fishing operation and we learned that they were, you know, catching huge numbers of sharks and finning these sharks. Yeah many of them said that their senior officers would take their phones like before they went to shore at the end of the journey, which could last for a year – they could be at sea for two years. Yeah, the foreman would take their phone and you know either you know. Instruct the Indonesian deckhand to kind of go through and show them the photos and delete the ones that showed you know shark fins or you know, catching whales or something like that. Or the captain would just switch the language to Chinese and reformat the phone himself. So that was pretty consistent. We heard that from something like five or six men from five or six different boats that that was happening, and that’s been known to happen more broadly as well. But still some some photos did make it off. Some men were able to save some photos and we published some of those in our.
13:04 AW – And you also have photos that Greenpeace and other NGOs. Took have taken. These practices from afar, another boat could see that this, I mean some of these sharks are massive and you could see them just being pulled up on the side of a boat.
13:22 PJ – It’s true, yeah, Greenpeace, I think it was in September 2019 that they kind of went on just kind of an expedition in the Atlantic Ocean. Just looking. Or boats that were catching sharks. And they published all these photos online and it just so happened that one of the boats they kind of stumbled upon in the Atlantic Ocean was the long chain which belongs to Dalian Ocean Fishing. It’s one of the boats that we collected testimony from about their shark operation and as you can see in the green these photo the deck hands pulling a shark onto the onto the deck so it’s pretty likely that that shark was finned based on what we learned from talking to the men who actually worked on.
14:06 AW – How unique, in your opinion, are Dalian’s practices? If we went to similar competitors in terms of size and scope, would we find similar shark finning practices in your estimation?
14:21 PJ – Yeah, I think it’s unlikely to be unique you see in scattered media reports from here, here or there. Kind of quoting men who worked on you know, distant water fishing boats that shark finning. Does happen? So there was an NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation. It’s based in London and they’ve put out a series of reports about different countries, distant water fishing fleets. They did one about Taiwan, one about South Korea, and their latest one was about China and the way. That they’ve put these reports together is they’ve tracked down men who worked on boats in these countries fishing fleets. So for their latest report. They interviewed, I think it was 116 Indonesians who worked on something like 80 or 90 Chinese fishing boats. If I’m not mistaken and they found that. 95% of the men had seen shark finning on their boats. So that’s just one indication of how rife, shark finning is, you know, in China’s fishing fleet now seeing shark finning on your boat doesn’t necessarily mean that you know your boat is your captain is engaging in like a deliberately catching shark and finning sharks on its massive industrial scale, which is what we found was happening on Dalian Ocean Fishing boats but to me I think it’s certainly it seems likely to me that it could be happening on other company’s fleets as well. The enforcement is really low. There are rules banning these things but the oversight is really poor, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
16:09 AW – So Phil, why don’t we talk about some of the practices and some of the solutions that are going into banning these shark finning practices and shark fishing in in general, not only the monitoring but trying to limit the type of gear. That boats can set sail with, et cetera.
16:32 PJ – So one of the findings from the investigation was that Dalian Ocean Fishings boats were using two types of fishing gear to deliberately catch sharks to intentionally target sharks. The gear is shark lines and wire leaders.
16:53 AW – And that’s different from like a tuna fish, right? Because these sharks have such incredible power in their bite, I imagine. So you need like wire.
17:00 PJ – Yeah, exactly so the wire leaders in a nutshell make it so that sharks can’t bite through the line. Because they have really sharp teeth. And then the shark lines. They’re shorter lines. They’re kind of designed to, so they’re hooks the baited hooks at the ends of them. Hang kind of closer to the surface where sharks tend to swim. So Dalian Ocean Fishing was using both wire leaders and shark lines at the same time to catch shark, so that’s actually been prohibited in the western Pacific Ocean for a long time. 5-10 years but Dolly Ocean fishing was doing it anyway, so one solution could just be to enforce the existing rules better so there’s different ways you can do that. You can increase observer coverage on these boats. You know some of these boats have to carry a human observer like a guy that basically you know just lives on the boat and makes sure the boats are following the rules you know there’s rules for like, what percentage of a fleet is supposed to have an observer right now in the Western Pacific? That percentage is really, really low. It’s 5% there is conservation. It’s say it should be much, much higher than that. So could that observer pop around from boat to boat maybe and spend you know a week on each boat or that observer has to be kind of embedded for a long time?
18:23 AW – Seems like they would be able to figure out the practices after a week, let’s say.
18:28 PJ – I think they would have to have a different observer on each boat, although I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s done an observer kind of switching boats at sea, I haven’t heard of that happening.
18:38 AW – And these observers are from where they’re not from the company themselves, I imagine.
18:43 PJ – There’s definitely systems in place to kind of organize. You know the placing of observers on these boats. I think governments are involved in those and kind of coordinating those, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how it works. I don’t think there’s like a company that supplies observers. I think the company, I think the fishing company is the one who pays the observers, but you know you don’t even have to have a human observer. You could put cameras on these boats.
19:09 AW – And show the lines that are being used or whatever.
19:11 PJ – Yeah, they show the lines they’d show if the sharks are being finned.Then they just could see things you know for captains beating up a crew member. I mean, I think if you just put the what I’ve been told is that the idea is if you put the camera on the boat you know to deterrent to bad practices. So yeah, so observers. I mean that’s I guess. To go back to the gear point. You know that’s how you enforce existing rules. Everyone says that observers are the best way to do that, but then you know what kinds of rules could should be changed. So actually one thing that happened in the Western Pacific Ocean in December after this article came out, in fact. Was that the Kind of the multilateral organization that governs tuna fisheries in the Western Pacific Ocean agreed to ban wire leaders and shark lines outright, so prior to that boats in the Western Pacific were allowed to use one or the other of those fishing implements you could use a sharp line or a wire leader, Dalian Fishing was using both illegally, nobody was stopping it, but now they’ve changed the rules so that you can’t use either one, at least in like between 20 N and 20 S latitudes. You can’t use shark lines or wire leaders, so that basically makes it a lot harder for boats to intentionally target sharks. So you know, I mean, you know you want you want to save sharks. You want to stop shark finning – one way you could do that is by making it harder for boats to catch sharks in the first place.
20:56 (Music Break)
21:57 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to journalist Philip Jacobson. So Phil, you spoke earlier about how China has created prohibitions against shark fins soup being served at government functions, et cetera. How effective can that end of this chain monitoring. Can we save sharks by doing away with this delicacy? I mean we we’ve already talked about the fish banning, but what about the consumption side of things?
22:28 PJ – So yeah, so the Chinese Government, you know they ban serving shark fins soup, but government functions. And there’s been other measures taken and it it does seem like that’s made a really huge difference in reducing demand for sharkfin soup, there have also been public awareness campaigns in China especially and elsewhere. You know an advertisement on the side of a bus in Shanghai or a commercial with Yao Ming. You know the famous basketball player? I’m telling people not to eat shark fins soup for conservation reasons for animal cruelty reasons. So it seems like that’s been pretty effective. You know, there’s actually been a decline in the recorded imports of shark fin to China. Although the experts that I’ve talked to tell me that no one really knows exactly why those figures have declined. Is it because demand has actually gone down? Is it because countries around the world are getting more serious about cracking down on enforcing rules around shark finning? Or maybe it’s because maybe the shark fins still going into China, but it’s just happening below the radar. It’s being smuggled in so it doesn’t get detected by those import statistics, and you know, that’s certainly something that we saw with Dalian Ocean Fishing. One of our you know we actually talked to some Indonesian fishers who were on boats that seemed to have smuggled shark fins into China under the nose of of port authorities. So you know those shark fins would not have been picked up by the official statistics, you know. So that’s maybe another explanation for why. Those recorded imports have fallen, but you know, it’s not just the fins, it’s also the meat. As the shark meat trade has is really rising right now.
24:30 AW – Why is that?
24:31 PJ – Well, I don’t think people really understand it. It’s kind of an emerging thing. One reason could be. Restrictions on shark fin trade. One of the policies that are put in place to combat shark fin trade is it’s not necessarily banning the trade, but you tell boats, OK, you can’t just keep the fin and throw the body away you have to keep the whole shark and then you can sell the fin legally, you know you can export it to Hong Kong or do whatever you want. But you’ve also got to take the whole body so if you’re taking the shark meat, the shark meat does have value. People eat shark meat, you know, Brazil is actually a huge consumer of shark meat. There’s dishes in Europe that use shark meat, so that could be one reason why demand has increased. Maybe it just makes more sense for the boats to kind of bring it in.
25:24 AW – It sounds to me that that could help the shark population. In the end, the real dangerous practice is this wasteful shark finning where people can, where fishermen can bring in huge amounts of shark and throw most of it away and just keep the fin or is that naive?
25:43 PJ – It’s a good question.
25:45 AW – So there are people who think that maybe we can protect shark populations by eating shark meat?
25:52 PJ – I think it’s definitely more sustainable to take the whole shark as opposed to just going after the fins, and you know, killing just like enormous numbers of sharks to fill up your whole hold with just fins. Any fishery can be overfished. There’s tuna species that have been pretty badly overfished and those fish are being hunted for their whole bodies, so you know, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that the same thing can happen with sharks. There’s probably examples of shark populations here or there that have been pretty badly overfished. Just even with taking the whole shark, so I mean, the people I’ve talked to… some of them say that you know sharks can be could be fished sustainably. But the thing is, right now there’s not really any global management of shark populations, right? So tuna fisheries are managed. You have these multilateral organizations that govern tuna fisheries in different parts of the high seas. So there’s one for the western Pacific Ocean. There’s one for the eastern Pacific Ocean. There’s one for the Atlantic Ocean, and so if you want to fish for tuna in those oceans, you have to get the boat. Has to be licensed by the multilateral organization, the countries have quotas for how much they can take. But shark fishing is in most cases. So you know it’s kind of a free for all, and there’s no management. So experts that I’ve talked to say that there should be the same kind of management for sharks that there is for tuna. And whether that means these multilateral organizations governing tuna should be repurposed to deal with sharks? That’s maybe one way you could do it, or you know. I don’t know, maybe you can create a whole new organization for sharks. I guess that’s maybe less practical. But right now there’s kind of this vacuum of oversight around shark fishing and the people I talked to say that that’s really what needs to change.
27:57 AW – Philip Jacobson thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:00 PJ – Thanks a lot, it’s great to be here. I appreciate it.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by John Williams, Bobby Darin and M Ward. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com. To stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.