A worker collects pieces of shark fins dried on the rooftop of a factory building in Hong Kong. Pic: AP.

Ninety percent of the globe’s shark population has vanished over the last 100 years, mostly due to a growing appetite for shark fin soup. Once a delicacy for a small rich elite, a growing affluence in China has caused the market for shark fins to balloon.

According to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and a report published in the journal Marine Policy, around 100 million sharks are slaughtered every year, the overwhelming majority simply for their fins. This extremely pointless and wasteful type of overfishing is predominantly an Asian phenomenon. The FAO report singled out Asian countries such as Indonesia, which is the world’s leading exporter of sharks.

An oceanic whitetip shark in Egypt's Red Sea, pic: Mykle Hoban (Flickr CC)

From an AFP report:

In 2010, the Indonesian government designed a national plan of action to better manage the shark-fishing industry, but it has so far issued no regulations. Rampant shark fishing has already affected ecosystems in Indonesian waters, including Raja Ampat, a world-famous diving spot. However, recent efforts by the provincial authorities there – emanating from a recognition that there is greater economic benefit in maintaining shark populations – could be a model for the future.

As I recently wrote, some token progress has been made in China’s government and private industry. However, demand for shark fin soup, a status symbol, continues to be strong among China’s growing middle class.

Sunday marked the start of the sixteenth Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is being held in Bangkok, Thailand. Among other pressing concerns including the ivory and illegal rhino horn trade, nations will consider the plight of endangered or vulnerable sharks such as certain hammerhead species, porbeagles and oceanic whitetips.

Manta rays are also on the decline due to the use of their gill plates in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a remedy for a range of maladies as disparate as chicken pox, asthma and cancer. I think it’s pretty safe to say that manta ray gill plates have absolutely no effect on these diseases, or any other for that matter. This means that the TCM industry is needlessly killing both people and manta rays. Some people, of course, are making a lot of money, while others are losing out.

From the Press Association:

The trade is on the increase, with Mozambique recording an 86% decline in sightings of the fish over the last eight years […] But manta rays are very important in eco-tourism, providing a major draw for divers who will pay a lot to see them [...] raising hopes countries will want to protect them.

The hope is that the CITES talks will produce binding agreements to regulate the trade of the five most threatened shark species as well as institute measures to protect manta rays, which will require a two thirds majority vote among the participating 178 countries – something that was not accomplished at the last meetings in 2010.

Read more from the Observer and BBC News.

Dried shark fins for sale in Singapore, pic: Choo Yut Shing (Flickr CC)