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

“It’s 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. Obviously they can’t eat, because they can’t swim. Or they might get eaten by other sharks. So regardless, it’s a pretty inhumane 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.

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

It’s like cutting off your limbs and leaving you to bleed to death.

Rebecca Regnery, deputy director of wildlife at Humane Society International

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

Sharks—and ecosystems—in jeopardy

Over the last two decades, their spree has been staggering, contributing to population declines as high as 90 and 99 % in some species in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. The International Union for Conservation of Nature now lists common finning targets such as the great hammerhead and scalloped hammerhead as globally endangered, while dusky and oceanic whitetip sharks are considered globally vulnerable.

“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.”

Such ripple effects have already been generated; along the East Coast of the U.S., for example, fewer sharks mean more skates and rays, who in turn have taken a large bite out of the scallop population. 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.

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.’ ”

Hawaii helps out

Over the last decade though, the outcry for sharks has grown louder. And in a monumental victory, Hawaii became the first state to ban the possession, sale& and distribution of shark fins.

The United States bans finning

The U.S. Congress technically banned shark finning in 2000, but the legislation has loopholes. For starters, fishermen are still allowed to have a limited number of separated fins onboard, if the rest of the animal isn’t dumped back overboard to die. But the measure can be hard to enforce and leaves plenty of room for cheating.

But the Shark Conservation Act closed such loopholes. The bill forces fishermen to bring sharks to port with their fins still attached—a requirement that advocates hope would, by virtue of freezer space alone, finally provide some real limits to their haul.

“It’s very sad to know that we are contributing to the demise of one of the greatest animals in history,” says HSI campaign manager Iris Ho, herself a Taiwanese American. “It’s shocking, it’s embarrassing and I just know we have to stop it. And I just honestly think that if Chinese people, if we are contributing to the problem, then the solution is also with us. We have to stop it.”