The Cruelty and Illegality Of Killing Sharks for Fins
A recent report by wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic shows that Indonesia continues to be the biggest shark-catching country in the world, based on UN Food and Agricultural Organization data.
Indonesia’s average annual reported shark catch in the past decade represents more than 13 percent of the reported global catch. Up to 65 percent of Indonesia’s catch is taken from the Pacific Ocean and the remainder from the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean, Indonesia owns the major shark fleets, with average catches fluctuating between 8,500 to 16,500 tons per year in recent years.
Most sharks are predators in coral reef and ocean ecosystems, sitting on top of the food pyramid and helping control the balance of the marine environment.
Losing one of these predators leads to uncontrolled population growth of other species. Sharks eat sick or wounded organisms to help maintain the ecosystem’s health. Without them, the entire food chain would collapse.
The practice of shark-finning has drawn a lot of attention and reactions. And since social media has made it even easier to report incidents, tourists and divers are now able to post their holiday observations.
Likewise, the progress made in the United States and Hong Kong on increasing consumer awareness and the reduced availability of shark-fin soup in restaurants are also receiving a lot of media attention. There is now an increasing outcry for governments to stop shark-finning.
“Finning” is a callous and careless practice in which sharks are caught, their fins sliced off, and their bleeding bodies thrown back into the water where they die a slow and painful death. Not only is this a cruel practice, it is illegal, inefficient and a waste of food resources.
Scientists have also joined the international community’s call for urgent action on the shark-fishing industry, acknowledging that the market for shark fins will continue to grow because increased buying power will create a bigger consumer base. On top of that, target species in shark fisheries grow slowly and mature late with few offspring, hence they are easily overfished.
The Indonesian government has had few legal tools in the past decades to prohibit or restrict shark fishing. Traffic suggests that the increase in shark and ray fishing in Indonesia has outgrown existing fisheries management approaches.
The only regulation and law enforcement related to shark fisheries and shark products was for sawfish and the implementation of the regulations was only applied to monitoring and banning the rostrum trade rather than to regulate trade of other parts of the body as it was considered too difficult to identify the species.
Pursuant to its membership in the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Indonesia was mandated to develop a national plan to protect sharks. Recognizing the importance of developing management regulations specific to shark fisheries, a research project funded by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research on artisanal shark and ray fisheries in Eastern Indonesia and their relationships with Australian resources, was undertaken in 2004 to develop a national plan of action.
The plan identifies key issues for shark and ray management in Indonesia and broad strategies to address these as well as the competent authorities. However, there are two big challenges underlying the implementation of the plan for sharks.
First is the considerable illegal shark fishing in Indonesian waters and some cases of corruption on the part of those charged with enforcement, and second is the predominance of the artisanal sector in shark catch.
Without the willingness to change, and without any strong legal basis to protect sharks and ban finning, the national plan of action for sharks is not being implemented.
Recently, the directorate of fisheries resources at the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries agreed to promulgate regulations — but not until 2013.
WWF is identified as a partner in implementing the initiatives identified in the plan. We examined the laws on animal welfare and protection, and determined that even without a viable national plan of action, certain provisions of existing laws on animal welfare could be applied to implement a ban on shark-finning now.
The two most prominent laws that support a ban on shark-finning are the Indonesian criminal code and Law No. 18/2009 on husbandry and animal health.
Article 302 of the Indonesian criminal code prescribes imprisonment for up to nine months for anyone guilty of maltreatment of animals, which means anyone who “without reasonable objective or by overstepping what is permissible in reaching such objective, with deliberate intent” commits an act toward an animal resulting in illness longer than one week, mutilation, serious harm or death.
Clearly, finning is a mutilation, and even if one were to argue that harvesting of shark fin for soup is a “reasonable objective,” finning can hardly be considered a permissible way to achieve it.
Law No.18/2009 on husbandry and animal health contains potent provisions on animal welfare that clearly apply to sharks. Sharks are “animals” and “wild animals” under the law. The law’s definition of animal welfare is to protect animals “from any unreasonable action … against an animal that is beneficial to human beings.” Article 66 states that animals must be kept free from ill treatment, torture and misuse, subject to penalty. “Misuse” is defined as obtaining “satisfaction and/or profit” from animals by utilizing them “unreasonably,” e.g., “pulling out a cat’s claw.” Cats can live without their claws; sharks cannot live without their fins.
Provisions on animal welfare apply to “all types of animals that bear backbone,” and even to spineless animals that can feel pain, such as crabs. If crabs are entitled to fair treatment, surely sharks deserve legal protection from finning.
While the well-being argument will surely raise many eyebrows in a country where sharks are seen as man-eaters, and pro-poor development strategies are not supportive of restricting access to more or less free-for-all natural resources, the public should be aware that it is illegal, under existing animal welfare laws, to fin sharks, and that the government has neglected its obligation to implement the national plan of action.
Proper management regulations on shark fisheries need to be enforced, allowing only for quota-based culling of shark populations that are not at an overfished level.
In absence of any such comprehensive data, the government should consider completely banning all shark fishing, allow for stocks to recover, develop a meaningful stock monitoring program and only allow for shark fishing of species that are proven to be in healthy stock status, by communities in coastal areas with small-scale gear, in support of sustainable fisheries and livelihoods of those who need it most. It’s time for the government to act.
Dr. Lida Pet-Soede is a leader of the WWF’s Coral Triangle Global Initiative in Jakarta. She oversees a diverse team working in cooperation with the governments, private sector and coastal communities of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.