I saw six sharks being cut up for their fins yesterday. And as monstrous as it was, it won’t make headlines, it isn’t News: currently the fins of between 26 million and 73 million sharks are sold a year, that’s up to 8,000 sharks killed an hour. And the market is booming.
It happened during our second ship inspection for the day, this time it was a Japanese longliner that was out for tuna and tuna-like species. We were about 200km from shore in an area of water isn't often patroled for a number of reasons. Two fisheries inspectors from Mozambique were with us, authorized to inspect what was being caught, and if it was being recorded inline with regulations.
The crew onboard, about twenty or so, was friendly enough, and they were just getting ready to haul in their lines – their incredibly long lines. We’re talking a fishing line 120km long with a shorter line leading off it every 40-50m. Each of those lines has a baited silver hook on the end; 3000 hooks altogether. So the length of the line is an hour’s drive in a fast car, passing a hook every 2 seconds. It’s fed out the back of the ship early in the day and slowly hauled in from just before sunset.
During inspection we found a rack of drying shark fins that had been strung up. I counted about 30 sets of fins, many of them still fresh. The ship’s license allows for sharks to be caught, but fins cannot be more than 5% of the total shark catch. Technically sharks are still classed as ‘by catch’ – on paper they aren’t seen as a target species in the way that tuna is. However as the demand for shark fin continues to rise, so does the price, and shark fins have become a hot commodity.
On deck the various tools and implements were all laid out and the wheels started pulling in the line. I was standing on a raised platform that looked down on the fishing deck; a birds-eye-view of the crew’s well rehearsed movements. There was no talking or shouting. The crew had surely done this dance a thousand times before, and they’d keep doing it for at least the next 12 hours, that’s how long it takes to pull in a stretch of line 120km long.
The first catch was a blue shark, and for this too, the crew has a dance. A group of men huddle together at the place where fish are gaffed and pulled onto the ship. I wonder about them: how much are they paid to do this, how long are they away from families? One of the men is easily 60 years old and he’s doing the same as all the others, pulling, passing, unclipping, packing, working a 12-hour shift. He has a cloth rolled up as a headband and stoops a little when he walks. Perhaps he shows the others how it’s done and loves his job. Maybe he hates it.
The shark is dragged onboard, still alive. It’s a good catch. When it’s all over later, the photographer will point out to me that the shark’s eyes were closed the whole time. But that’s surely just instinct, I hope. Her head is cut off, and then come the fins. A 200kg animal slaughtered for a kg or two, for soup. 8,000 times a day – like I said, this isn’t news. It happens all the time, and it’s completely legal. A shark is butchered for fins, then disemboweled, her babies wriggling on the deck.