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The Ethics of Sharks

When it comes to the sale of shark products, often the question isn't solely about legalities ("Am I breaking a law by selling this product?"), it is about ethics. Increasingly, many businesses are instituting and adhering to their own set of internal ethics thanks to consumer pressure–asking themselves, "Is it ethical to produce or sell this product?" Most of the time, these ethics deal with customer safety, the product's environmental footprint, and also how materials were obtained.

And that's where our battle begins. Because shark products typically don't meet basic ethical standards in any of those areas.

Is it ethical to sell products that contain endangered animals?

Hammerhead shark populations are down up to 98%. Photo: Rob StewartHammerhead shark populations are down up to 98%. Photo: Rob StewartThe sale of shark products is incredibly damaging to threatened or endangered shark species. With shark populations plummeting worldwide, it isn't hard to question the ethics of someone selling shark products – whether they are selling shark fin soup or manufacturing pet food with shark in it. Most of the species that are utilized commonly in shark products are considered endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Also, shark products are not consistently labeled by species and may even be intentionally mislabeled, so it is very difficult to prove origination. Many will claim their products are made from non-endangered species, knowing that it is next to impossible to validate this claim. However, last month, a scientific study proved 21% of hammerhead fins sampled from 11 Hong Kong markets were taken from sharks living in the western Atlantic Ocean, where the species is listed as endangered.

Is it ethical to sell products that may poison customers?

It is also easy to question a company's commitment to its customers' health. The consumption of shark products can be dangerous and carry warnings from several worldwide entities – including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For instance, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identifies sharks as the #1 fish to avoid for having the very highest levels of dangerous methyl-mercury. The FDA also warns against consuming sharks, especially for women of childbearing years and young children.

Is it ethical to sell products that were obtained illegally and are fueling a dangerous black market trade?

Shark fishing is illegal in many places throughout the world. A large amount of documentation exists that proves illegal shark fishing is outrageously prevalent. For instance, research indicates that the fins of up to 73 million sharks move through the shark fin market of Hong Kong each year, whereas countries trading in fins report to the UN only a fraction of that. The high sales value placed on shark fin, mostly destined for Asia, drive fishermen throughout the world to harvest sharks at a wildly unsustainable rate, without regard to laws. And the demand for shark products is feeding a black market trade often compared to the illegal drug and weapons trades. Run by a mafia, the trade is rife with murder, illegal smuggling, and incredible profits for a few dangerous criminals.

Is it ethical to sell products that have been obtained from animals in painful and cruel ways?

Shark finning is an incredibly brutal and callous act – one that is often inflicted upon live animals. Sharks are dragged onto boats, clubbed in order to stun them, and then, their fins are cut off with a hot blade. These sharks are thrown back into the ocean to die slowly and painfully, either bleeding to death, suffocating or being eaten alive.

Is it ethical to sell products that are directly leading to the destruction of our most important ecosystem?

Shark fins for sale in one of hundreds of stores in Hong Kong. Photo: Julie AndersenShark fins for sale in one of hundreds of stores in Hong Kong. Photo: Julie AndersenThe demand for shark products, particularly shark fin, is quickly depleting the oceans of the last remaining sharks. Many species' numbers have declined by over 90% and there is evidence that certain species are regionally extinct. We need sharks on this planet. As apex predators, they play a critical role in keeping our oceans healthy. Oceans provide this planet with more than half of our oxygen, are our best defense against global warming since they remove over half of the carbon dioxide and control the weather as well as the temperature of the planet.