The Human Side of the Shark Fin Trade

Photo credit: Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images.

Guest Blogger: Kylie Holub

The following guest post was voted best in the class for an undergraduate assignment on communicating science from Humboldt State University’s Fall 2019 Fish Conservation and Management course taught by Dr. Andre Buchheister. The assignment required students to find a peer-reviewed article on a fisheries management topic that interests them and to communicate the issue in a blog format to a general audience. 

For over 350 million years, shark species have evolved to become one of the top predators in our oceans, surviving five mass extinctions by adapting to the many ecological changes our planet has experienced. However, despite their impressive physiological attributes and evolutionary track record, some sharks are in danger of extinction due to various human stressors. Some examples of these stressors are falling victim to by-catch due to large scale commercial fishing, being harvested for their nutrient rich livers for use in the cosmetic industry, and perhaps the biggest of them all, the removal of their fins to be sold in the shark fin trade (Jaiteh et al. 2017). With an estimated 80-100 million sharks being killed each year, biologist fear this may have cascading ecosystem effects (Clarke et al. 2006).

Photo credit: Wildlife Concept Conservation

This narrative is a well-known and passionately discussed topic. But, it only tells the sharks’ side of the story. The human side of the shark fin trade is where this blog truly begins. For years, shark fishermen of Southeast Asian countries have caught sharks to make a living and provide for their families. However, with the overfishing of many shark species due to various human stressors, these fishermen are facing financial obstacles that are leading them to take more risks, often times illegal and resulting in criminal charges, to make ends-meet.  As we begin to see the depth and difficulties of the shark fin trade, it is clear that this is not a black and white conservation tale. The shark fisherman who are seen as the exploiters are actually exploited themselves.  We cannot ignore the human side of the story because it is the key to figuring out a future where sharks and the fishermen who hunt them can survive.

Lack of resources, leads to risky behavior

Shark fishermen are often from low-socioeconomic communities where options for income are limited; for a vast majority, shark fishing is there only way of life (Jaiteh et al. 2017).  They hunt sharks out of necessity, to survive, not because they want to. However, due to the continued demand for shark fins, fishermen are spending more time at sea, often times in dangerous conditions, to try to catch more sharks to provide financially for their families, while shark fin prices continue to decrease (Jaiteh et al. 2017).  On average, a shark boat makes a little over USD $400 (gross profit) a week and the cost to rent their boat from the “bosses,” (who also act as the middlemen for the buying of the shark fins and reselling them to places like China and Vietnam) is approximately USD $600 per week, USD $200 more than they actually made (Bajak Laut 2019). As we can see, they become more indebted to the bosses leading them to taking more risks.  The escalation of risks can best be seen in Jaiteh et al. (2017)’s flow chart below which touches on the issues the shark fin trade is causing (Jaiteh et al. 2017).  While we have discussed some of the risks shark fisherman are taking, there are additional areas of concern. One being the illegal activity of people smuggling, which has higher payouts and if conducted can help the shark fishermen pay back their bosses. However, this often times leads to imprisonment of the shark fishermen who are illegally smuggling people and the bosses who instructed them to do so are left untouched (Jaiteh et al. 2017). 

Additional complications with respect to conservation include the exclusion to specific fishing grounds due to shark sanctuaries and the Economic Exclusive Zone that impact the shark fishermen’s access to more abundant fishing grounds (Jaiteh et al. 2017). This topic in itself could be an entire article but is important to note as an additional complication shark fishermen face.

This flow chart gives a view into what factor impact the livelihood of shark fisherman and the challenges they face to make ends meet.  The arrows show the drivers and what decisions are made from them (Jaiteh et al. 2017).

An alternative way of life

Shark eco-tourism has been successful in Australia, South Africa, Spain, Philippines, and Belize and has shown promise for a more sustainable and profitable way of life. Some regions within the Indo-pacific, where the majority of the shark fishermen live (Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji, and other small island countries), have begun to offer shark diving excursions that have seen annual values of USD $40 million for the countries in the Indo-Pacific region (Mau 2008). Other locations in Australia and South Africa are offering shark related excursions as well which is bringing in approximately USD $10 million combined (Mau 2008).

Taking the financial data from countries who are profiting from shark eco-tourism, this information can be a valuable segue into introducing the shark fishermen into a more lucrative way of life. Fisherman need education to understand that living sharks are as profitable, if not more than dead sharks. It doesn’t stop there, however. The public needs education to see the social consequences of the shark fin trade to these fishing communities.

There are examples of where this approach has worked. The shark eco-tourism company Project Hiu was founded by first meeting with the local shark fishermen and spending time with them, learning what was happening within their communities. This program then brings in tourists to experience a week seeing East Lombok, Indonesia and also learning about what these shark fisherman face on a daily basis (Bajak Laut 2019).  While this may appear to be something small, it can have big impacts. Fishing boats have been repurposed for tourists, saving approximately 200 sharks each week per boat (Bajak Laut 2019). This conservation can up quickly and shows fishermen that a week of bringing tourists out on the water to see live sharks makes them as much money (or more) than they do spending a week (or more) fishing, away from their families, in dangerous conditions (Jaiteh et al. 2017).  While this shark eco-tourism program is still in its early stages, the hope is that through education and alternative financial source the shark fisherman will see the money sharks can bring them in the long-term by keeping them alive (Bajak Laut 2019).

A future without exploitation

It’s easy to get lost in an issue when only one side of the story is being told and that is why the human side of the shark fin trade must be told. Not only are we seeing significant declines in some shark populations, a key predator in the ocean’s food web, we are seeing the exploitation of the shark fishermen who hunt them. But, there is a bright side, examples have proven that the industry can change and that both victims of this horrible trade can come out on top. With the introduction of shark eco-tourism, broader, educational opportunities, and government intervention, fishermen have options for sustainable livelihoods that do not put them, or sharks, at risk. As a result, the shark species that are in danger of becoming extinct can rebound.   

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Kylie Holub, an undergrad at Humboldt State University studying Fisheries Science and Film. My interest in fisheries and film is no coincidence. The ocean along with the creatures that inhabit it hold a special place in my heart and that’s what has pushed me toward this path. Now, where the film part comes into play is based on my belief that science and creative art go hand-in-hand.  In order to help people better understand what is going on, it’s important to present it to them in a way they can easily digest. That’s where visual communication comes into play and can act as a catalyst toward bridging the gap between scientist and everyday people through film-based science communication. My hope is that by combining these two disciplines, I can bring my love for the science to people in a visual manner so we can find common ground and understanding so we can help each other be better environmental stewards to this planet.

For other Humboldt State student posts, please see:


Bajak Laut. Directed by Madison Stewart. Energi Impact Productions, 2019. Project Hiu, Vimeo,

Clarke, S. C., M. K. McAllister, E. J. Milner-Gulland, G. P. Kirkwood, C. G. J. Michielsens, D. J. Agnew, E. K. Pikitch, H. Nakano, and M. S. Shivji. 2006. Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets. Ecology Letters 9: 1115-1126.

Jaiteh, V.F., N.R. Lonevagan, and C. Warren. 2017. The end of shark finning? Impacts of declining catches and fin demand on coastal community livelihoods. Marine Policy 82: 224-233. Mau, R.  2008. Managing for conservation and recreation: The Ningaloo whale shark experience. Journal of Ecotourism 7: 213-225.

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