On a longline fishing boat off the Galapagos Islands, a concerned biologist working undercover as a cook films a horrifying scene.

As the camera rolls, a blue shark is dragged upside down out of the water, a sharp hook piercing it through the roof of the mouth and out through the side of the face. As the shark tries to wiggle free, fins flapping against the deck, a shirtless man enters the picture.

Soon, he’s using a knife to cut into the large pectoral fin on the shark’s left side. Another man steps on the right fin, pinning it down as the shark swings its tail in desperation, blood streaming across the deck. A second fin is cut off, then a third and a fourth, the other man now standing atop the struggling shark to hold it down.

Finally, they slice into the throat to retrieve another hook before kicking the shark back into the water. Nearly decapitated, the animal tries to swim off, half-spinning, half-slithering away—another victim of the cruel practice known as shark finning.

A cruel death

“Shark finning is like cutting off your limbs and leaving you to bleed to death,” says Rebecca Regnery, deputy director of wildlife at Humane Society International. “We don’t know how most of them die, but you can guess that they probably either bleed to death or suffocate, because they can’t swim, so they’re not getting oxygen. They can’t eat, because they can’t swim. Or they might get eaten by other sharks. So regardless, it’s a horrific way to die.”

Owing to the high demand for shark fin soup, particularly in China, tens of millions of sharks meet similar fates each year—from skittish hammerheads to naturally curious silky sharks to ponderous, slow-moving basking sharks.

Finning is not only gruesome, but dangerously efficient. Dumping the bodies and leaving the fins to dry on a boat’s deck frees up freezer space, which fishermen can save for more valuable meats like swordfish and tuna.

All this to provide for a luxury menu item, one that’s especially popular at weddings and Chinese New Year celebrations. Unbelievably, the fin itself is flavorless; it’s used instead for its texture and to symbolize status.

Fins being removed from a great hammerhead shark
Jeff Rotman
Alamy Stock Photo

Sharks—and ecosystems—are in jeopardy

Roughly 73 million sharks are killed for the global shark fin trade each year.The International Union for Conservation of Nature now claims that a third of all shark and shark-like species (like skates and rays) are threatened with extinction. These population declines are alarming as sharks are critical to healthy ocean ecosystems.

“The impact has been devastating, not only to sharks, but […] their role in the ecosystem,” says Randall Arauz, president of the Costa Rican conservation and research group PRETOMA, which helped open eyes to the issue by capturing the Galapagos video in September 1997. “Sharks are high in the food chain, and they control everything underneath them, so any impacts on shark populations will definitely trickle down the food chain.”

Out of sight, out of mind

“[Shark finning] has no place in the 21st century,” says Susie Watts, who consults for HSI on shark issues from her home in England.

“When I first heard about finning and realized the scale on which it was conducted, I thought to myself: If this were happening on land, if somebody was going around cutting off leopards’ paws and just leaving the leopard to bleed to death on the ground—and doing it all over Africa and Asia— there would be an international outcry. And yet, at that time [in 1998], very few people were remotely concerned about shark finning, which seemed to me to be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ ”

The United States steps up

The U.S. banned shark finning in 2000, but the trade in fins remained legal until late 2022 when the Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. This monumental victory was a culmination of almost a decade of work, and effectively removes the US from the global shark fin trade. By reducing the demand for the product, The U.S. is no longer participating in the cruel trade or incentivizing finning across the globe.

In addition to this federal legislation, 17 states, including California, Texas, Maryland, and Florida, ban or limit the intrastate trade of shark fins within their borders.“Ending the U.S.’ participation in the global fin trade, and the creation of this framework, re-asserts the U.S. as a leader in shark conservation,” said Kathryn Kullberg, Director of Marine and Wildlife Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “It is our hope that other countries will follow suit and ban the trade in shark fins so that these beautiful stewards of our ocean ecosystems are protected from a cruel death and get to keep on swimming.”