By Ananda Banerjee
India, where shark fin is not a popular culinary choice, is the second largest catcher of the fish but does not figure among top exporters.
New Delhi: “It actually tastes of nothing,” celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay once told his television audience while tasting some shark fin soup at a Taiwanese restaurant. “It’s like having plain glass noodles.”
Millions of people obviously don’t think so. The demand for the pricey shark fin soup, a delicacy of the Cantonese cuisine, has increased tremendously among the emergent Chinese middle class eager to flaunt their newfound prosperity.
For the sharks, it means a gruesome death. Since its meat is not highly valued, the shark is thrown back into the sea after its fins are hacked off, letting the fish sink to the bottom to die painfully. As many as 73-100 million sharks are killed every year to feed the $360 billion fin industry, according to a report published on 30 May in Oryx, an international journal on conservation. Such overfishing threatens the survival of the top marine predator.
After an outcry by conservationists, China in December banned shark fin soup and bird’s nest soup from official banquets, ostensibly to reduce government expenditure.
Surprisingly India, where shark fins are not a popular culinary choice, is the second largest shark-catching nation after Indonesia, according to TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors wildlife trade. At least 74,000 tonnes of sharks are caught by the country’s fishermen, which with Indonesia accounted for 20% of the global catch between 2002 and 2011, the wildlife trade monitoring network says. India’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, however, says only 26,746 tonnes of sharks were caught in 2011.
Condemning the ghastly act of cutting off fins from sharks, the country's environment ministry in August banned the practice, making it illegal to be found possessing a severed fin.
Indian waters are home to some 60 varieties of sharks among the 465 found globally. Out of these only four—Whale shark, Ganges shark, Pondicherry Shark and Speartooth shark—are shielded under the wildlife protection law.
Like the tiger on land, sharks are a keystone species in the oceans. The indiscriminate butchering of the apex predator of the seas may hold grave consequences for the marine ecosystem. A July 2001 ban on shark hunting by the environment ministry was short-lived after strong protests from fishing communities.
Currently, 65 countries have banned finning, but in most cases laws, rules and conservation measures remain weak and ambiguous. Many of them remain open to different interpretations. “Every country with a coastline exports shark fins to Hong Kong and China,” says Shelley Clarke, fisheries scientist and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) shark specialist group. “Though the demand for fins has grown over the years, the supply has dwindled because of unsustainable fishing practices.”
Will the bar on finning work in India? The recent rule on making it a crime has already drawn protests.
While applauding the environment ministry’s action, Vincent Jain, chief executive of Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, says: “Since 2005, there has been no shark finning by artisanal fishermen. Only trawlers are engaged in this cruel practice.” Jain is apprehensive that if monitoring and implementing officers are not well-versed with the present ban and its contents, it may lead to unnecessary complication.
Other experts share his concern.
“It will be difficult to enforce the ban on the ground as there is not enough awareness among officials and the fishing community,” says Shekhar Niraj, head of Traffic India. “As it involves livelihood issues, and no social impact assessments have been accounted, it may create social unrest amongst local fishermen.”
There’s also the problem of foreign fishing vessels coming into Indian waters to fish sharks illegally, says Niraj, who in his previous role as director of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park has confiscated wildlife contraband, including shark fins.
Conservationist and film-maker Himanshu Malhotra, who recorded the gruesome act of shark-finning at sea for his award winning documentary Diminishing Resources (2006), agrees with Neeraj that ground realities are different and a central notification may not work. Also, there’s this uncomfortable fact that most of the Indian trade in shark fins takes place in the black market. Although TRAFFIC data show the country is the second largest catcher of the fish, it is not a leading exporter of shark fins. In fact, it does not even make it to the top 15 list. The top exporters are Spain, Singapore, Taiwan and Indonesia. They export mainly to Hong Kong, the world’s biggest market.
India exported 91 tonnes of dried shark fin worth $6.37 million in financial year 2012-13, according to the Marine Products Export Development Authority, of which 76 tonnes worth $4.9 million were shipped to China.
Some 200 tonnes of predominantly frozen shark products are imported every year from India, European Union import data show. More....