Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Mislabelling of shark products is a huge issue as it exposes consumers to health risks, allows for endangered species to enter the market and damages marine ecosystems.
Mislabelling of shark products is a huge issue as it exposes consumers to health risks, allows for endangered species to enter the market and damages marine ecosystems. Mislabelling means that consumers are unaware of products containing certain ingredients such as shark meat as these do not appear on the label. This also does not allow consumers to make sustainable choices and discourages informed decisions. Additionally, the use of hypernyms is often a problem as it disguises actual ingredients. Mislabelling of shark products is one of the factors driving the rapid decline of shark populations. Sharks are crucial to the health of our oceans; they maintain the balance of ecosystems and keep populations healthy by removing injured, ill and weak individuals and overabundant species. Shark populations are declining at alarming speeds, we have already lost more than 90% of the world's sharks. We need to protect and save sharks from extinction to save the future of our oceans.
Overfishing is driving our shark populations to extinction and is driven by the high demand for shark commodities.
Why can shark meat consumption expose you to health risks?
Consuming shark products (such as meat and fins) exposes you to dangerously high levels of toxins such as mercury and BMAA (neurotoxin). Sharks are apex predators and therefore accumulate toxins from lower trophic levels via a process called bioaccumulation - this means that sharks take in all the toxins their prey (and their prey’s prey) have absorbed. Therefore, sharks accumulate significantly higher levels of toxins in their tissues than most other fish. So not only is mislabelling fraud, it can also negatively impact your health.
Different examples of shark products and common dishes such as the shark fin soup.
Why are shark populations declining so drastically?
The main driver of shark population declines has been identified as overexploitation, both through targeted and incidental catches (bycatch), driven by the global demand for shark commodities such as meat, fins, liver oil, and gill plates. The practice of shark finning (the removal of the shark's fins - often conducted while the shark is still alive, and then discharging the alive carcass in the ocean) is mainly driven by the traditional Asian shark fin soup, which has created a huge fin import market around Asia and primarily Hong Kong. This dish was previously only affordable for the upper-class, but through rapid economic growth in the early 2000s, it became readily available to the middle-class, drastically increasing the demand for shark fins.
The practise of finning is illegal in many countries but is often executed by underpaid fisheries - fins are recorded as the most valuable seafood product (up to $400 per kg of fins) and take up no valuable freezer space on a boat as the fins are dried on the deck or roof. Comparatively, shark meat is only worth 20-60% of the value of tuna or mackerel, making obtained fins through finning a highly valued commodity for illegal trade, where ‘black markets’ are difficult to control due to a lack of international monitoring. Estimates predict that 100 million sharks are caught each year, with up to 76 million of these killed only for their fins. Investigations over multiple years have reported that many traded fins belong to species that are protected under multiple organisations (such as CITES) and under TACs (Total Allowable Catches) and are of high conservation concern. Underreporting of catches and Illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUU) is thought to be even more pronounced with shark fins because they are often unrecorded in harvest statistics and difficult to monitor.
The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a key factor in the overexploitation of our oceans and shark populations. This describes the process by which rational, profit-driven individuals will exploit common resources (such as our oceans), due to common accessibility and lack of ownership. It is based on a short-term, self-oriented, and profit-driven mentality to maximise one’s benefit, rather than conserving the benefit for all. Only a few initiatives limiting catches, alongside insufficient management of fisheries, leads to fisheries being driven to maximise their catches to increase their profits. The “freedom in commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin 1998) as overexploitation of common resources such as fish will eventually lead to irreversible population collapses affecting all of us.
Shark fisheries overexploit shark populations globally; especially those of pelagic and apex predatory species. These unsustainable harvesting rates have led to a decline in both shark size and diversity all over the world.
There is a deficiency of species-specific data with many catches going unrecorded, especially that of bycatch. This facilitates illegal trade which is difficult to regulate (due to little control over high sea activities) and is of little political interest due to the extent of subsidies that are invested into fisheries. High economic incentives make reliable data on IUU fishing activities rare: the unregulated trade of shark commodities is highlighted as one of the most severe threats to shark populations. It is predicted that only half of global catches are recorded. Many countries report catches in large species groups, therefore reported species-specific numbers are often significantly underestimated. Furthermore, fisheries data often excludes discards and most bycatch goes unrecorded, leading to further underestimations.
Over 100 million sharks are caught every year.
Control over the shark commodity market is inhibited by a lack of species-specific data, that commercial fisheries often fail to provide. It is often difficult to identify the morphology of processed products (such as shark fins), although DNA barcoding offers opportunities to obtain species-specific data, for most samples. As many shark commodities on the market are not labelled or are mislabelled, DNA barcoding provides a powerful, precise, inexpensive, and lucrative tool that has exposed the trade of many endangered and illegally traded species. Furthermore, DNA barcoding can reveal information as to the biological origin of samples and the region in which they have been caught - such information is crucial for the effective conservation and monitoring of threatened species. Mislabelling and non-labelling are found to be more prevalent in developing countries and are mostly an attempt to avoid consumer resistance and to cover up wildlife crimes (such as the trade of protected species), allowing for illegal shark products to enter the market. Mislabelling of shark products is also used to replace other overexploited fish species in the market, not solving but rather shifting the problem.
Shark fin soup, a dish prepared with the cartilage of the sharks fins, is the main driver of the high shark fin demand.
What can I do?
The biggest issue is that, as consumers, we are often not aware of what we are actually eating. Here is a list of commonly used hypernyms used to disguise shark meat around the world, backed up by extensive scientific studies. In Australia and the UK ‘flake’ is commonly used but may also be referred to as ‘rock eel’, ‘huss’ or ‘rock salmon’. In South Africa, shortfin mako meat is ladled as ‘ocean fillets’ or ‘skomoro’. In Brazilian supermarkets shark meat is sold as ‘cação’, and in Greece as ‘galeos’. Other general common names include ‘cazón’, ‘bolillo’, ‘surimi’, ‘paletita’, ‘moki’ and ‘whitefish’. Additionally, in some countries there is no legal obligation to label neither the species nor its origin, such as in Australia with cooked seafood.
The best thing we can do to protect sharks from extinction is to reduce the shark commodity market by avoiding buying shark products. Please keep an eye out for these hypernyms for shark meat and spread the word.
Flake / Sea Eel (Seeaal)/Moki / Whitefish / Catfish / Cação / Rock Eel / Dogfish / Saumonette / Galeos / Grayfish / Little salmon / Huss / Steak Fish / Paletita / Cazón / Lemon fish / Smooth-hound / Rock Salmon / Cape Steak / Sokomoro / Bolillo / Rigg / Sea Ham / Ocean Fillets / Gummy / Surimi
Sharks used to be very abundant in our oceans but now, one is lucky to encounter one. Shark populations are drastically declining and need more protection for them to be saved from extinction. Sharks are of high ecological importance and crucial to the health of our oceans. The biggest impact we can have to combat shark declines is to reduce the shark commodity market and to educate people on the importance of sharks, and the problems behind mislabelling.
Marine Biologist | Trainer
RED SEA PROJECT™
(Jacquet and Pauly, 2008; Bornatowski et al., 2013;Bornatowski et al., 2014; Staffen et al., 2017; Almerón-Souza et al., 2018; Marín et al., 2018; Hellberg et al., 2019; Hobbs et al., 2019; Pazartzi et al., 2019; Bernardo et al., 2020; Braccini et al., 2020; Marchetti et al., 2020; Minoudi et al., 2020, etc.)