Taiwan Tries to Slow Shark-finning

Taiwan next year is set to become the first Asian country to seek to slow the annual slaughter of millions of sharks for shark’s fin soup.

It is hardly a perfect measure. After years of pressure from environmental groups, on July 10 Taiwan's Fishery Agency says it will ban fishermen from bringing dismembered sharks into port. An outright moratorium on shark finning is considered politically impossible, however.

The logic is that while the fins are valuable, the carcasses are not. Usually fishermen slice off the fins and throw the live sharks back, condemning them to drown, since they need to keep moving for water to pass through their gills. Since most sharks are caught accidentally by fishermen in search of other game, according to the theory, rather carrying the whole carcasses home, fishermen will now simply throw the whole fish back into the water.

Taiwanese fishermen are already barred from tossing de-finned sharks back but are allowed them to dismember them on board. From the start of 2012, the sharks will have to be brought into the ports intact. There, the dismembering can be supervised in compliance with a fin-to-body ratio set by the government. Violators face fines or even cancellation of their fishing licenses. The new rule will apply to operations in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

A culinary must at wedding banquets for increasingly rich Chinese, shark’s fin soup has been bringing sharks towards the brink of extinction despite the fact that the soup is largely tasteless. As with tiger penises and deer antlers, the fin, the most powerful part of the most powerful fish in the water, is believed to confer strength and stamina on those who eat it. Taiwanese environmentalists say shark fin consumption from wedding banquets at the island's 70-odd high-class hotels alone annually causes the killing of at least some 900,000 of the animals. By one estimate 4 million sharks are killed for Taiwanese shark’s fin soup alone

The world's fishing fleets catch anywhere between 26 million (the United Nations estimate) to 73 million (environmentalists’ estimates) sharks annually.

Although the sharks will still end up being slaughtered under the new regulation, Taiwan's activist groups have applauded the agency's move.

“This approach is not only plausible, but also feasible; and with the chance to help conserve the shark population for the long term benefit of sharks, environment and human beings.” Joyce Wu of TRAFFIC Taipei, a wildlife trade monitoring network, told Asia Sentinel.

“As the details haven't been announced, we are not sure to what extent the new regulation would apply,” she said. Presently, shark fishery vessels over 100 GT are prohibited from finning and mustn't transship or land the harvested shark fins and carcasses separately.” The ratio of shark fin to carcasses that actually make it to the ports shall not exceed 5 percent, she added.

“Under the updated regulations, the 5 percent clause will remain with the difference that the whole shark with fin will have to be kept intact,” Wu said. She furthermore stated that her group is not sure whether the new regulation will only apply to fishing vessels over 100 GT or be extended to all size of fishing vessels.

Unsurprisingly, the Taiwanese fishing industry disagree. Fishermen say they have long quit tossing the wounded animals overboard all together as the price of shark meat has climbed in recent years. They say as intact shark bodies take up too much space, the amount of catch that can be transported back will decrease by about 20 percent with the cost for labor and diesel remaining the same.

They say that if they cannot dismember the sharks on board, they will have to freeze them intact, only to thaw them after having landed to package them for export, finally freezing them a second time, a process that causes the meat’s quality to deteriorate. The law is useless, they say, because the main culprits will never be caught in a Taiwanese fishing port. Taiwan's high-sea fisheries are mostly tuna fishing vessels for which shark is by-catch. They offload in foreign lands make to money on their catch, returning to their home island with cash.

“I am not sure about the percentage but many high-sea fishing vessels do land their catches at ports outside Taiwan,” Wu acknowledged. “This is mainly to keep their practice more economical, with high-sea fishing vessels from other countries doing the same thing. However, if the landing ports have less strict regulation than their flag countries, there is room for the illegal practice.”

According to Taiwanese government statistics, 20 percent of the high-sea fisheries' catch is landed outside Taiwan's borders. Environmentalist groups believe that is an underestimate. But they nonetheless believe that there are ways to limit the practice of illegally unloading the shark fins abroad.

They recommend establishing observer systems and sea patrols as well as port inspections in cooperation with landing ports’ countries. At present, only ships longer than 100 meters, which account for about 5 percent of the fleet, are boarded by observers, while port inspections notoriously fall victim to sovereignty issues.

A report by the London Telegraph published earlier this year made apparent how little the law is likely to stop shark-finning by Taiwan's high-sea fleet. According to the report, the celebrity chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay travelled to Costa Rica to film segments of a program dedicated to shark finning.

When filming a hideout of Taiwanese shark-fin smugglers that resembled the estate of a South American cocaine mafia, with barbed-wire perimeters and gun towers, Ramsay was caught, doused with gasoline and held at gun point. He managed to escape unhurt, but police later nonetheless ordered Ramsay and his crew out of the country.

Taiwanese academics interviewed by Asia Sentinel agree that while the big boys will get away even with the new law, fishermen active in Taiwan's coastal waters will be bothered by inspections.

“Almost all the near-shore fisheries have been bringing in the whole shark intact. They cut out the fins, body, organs and skin for various purposes,” said Cheng I-Jiunn, professor at National Taiwan Ocean University's Department of Life Sciences. “This part has been checked many times by international organizations.”

To the near-shore fisheries, Cheng said, sharks aren't necessarily by-catch to be tossed overboard as shark meat is valuable sea food in Taiwan and China.

“Most of the fisheries in Taiwan are multi-purpose. They bring several types of gear and then target depending on what kind of fish they can find. Shark is actually one of the major target fisheries in Taiwan,” he said. “For the coastal fisheries, shark is valuable enough to bring in the whole thing. If they only bring in the shark fins, they will not profit enough.”

Chen Li-Li Chen, an assistant professor at the same university's Institute of Marine Biology, disagreed. “They are usually caught by accident,” he said. “If the fishermen catch a shark, they will estimate whether it is worthy to bring the whole shark home.”

There are other possible reasons for the law.

“It is quite possible that the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou was thinking about soft power,” said Gary D. Rawnsley, a professor of Asian International Communications at the University of Leeds. “Several months ago, Taiwan was featured in a TV program in the UK about shark fishing, a topic normally confined to China and Japan. The fact that Taiwan was featured is quite significant; named as shamed, as we say in the UK.”

Ma frequently emphasizes his commitment to strengthening Taiwan's soft power. With the country constantly being shoved from the international stage by Beijing, support from other countries can mainly be attracted by soft power. TV footage shown to international audiences depicting Taiwanese fishermen engaging in a bloody shark-finning orgy hardly helps President Ma in his quest to enable Taiwan making friends.

Rawnsley nonetheless emphasized that any consequences that the new law will have in soft power terms depends on the public diplomacy process that is implemented to publicize it.

“There is no point passing a law for international opinion if international opinion never hears about it. Now it is extremely important for Taiwan to concentrate on selling the message. Will the next step be the banning of shark fishing altogether? This would have a very dramatic soft power impact,”