Shark finning is the process of cutting a fin off a shark to meet demand for shark fins for shark fin soup and traditional medicines. Shark finning is done at sea, and so the rest of the shark's body is cast into the ocean, sometimes still alive. When it reenters the ocean, the shark is incapable of swimming upright, and dies.
Even though the fins do not have any taste, they are a sought-after commodity for shark fin soup, which is a delicacy in Asian cultures and a dish served at special occasions. The flavorless fin apparently lends a "mouth-feel" that is prized by those who eat it, and the expensive soup, which can cost more than $100, is a status symbol.
Why Care About Shark Finning?
Never mind the cruelty involved in slicing off a live animal's body and returning it to the water where it likely won't survive. This is also a wasteful practice, as the rest of the shark is thrown in the ocean as the meat isn't considered valuable and the fishermen don't want to take up space by transporting the shark's bodies. Sharks are top predators in the ocean, and play an important role in the ocean food web. Sharks keep prey populations in check, so overfishing of sharks threatens the stability of the ocean ecosystem.
Shark Finning Laws
Some countries have enacted laws that required whole sharks to be landed, or regulations that prohibit landing of a ratio such that the a weight of shark fins landed is not greater than 5% of the dressed weight (weight of the carcass after the removal of the shark's head and guts.)
As of 2008, shark fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, along the Atlantic Coast and around Hawaii and California are required to land sharks with their fins attached (with the exception of thresher sharks in California.)
While many countries and states have enacted laws regulating shark finning, it still occurs in many areas. Shark Savers has a list of countries that have enacted shark finning regulations, and those include over 20 countries around the world. Even so, more regulations are needed and the existing ones are difficult to enforce. Consumers may have a big impact on this one, as it is demand for shark fin soup that causes shark finning to continue. A May 2009 article reported encouragingly that consumer awareness is starting to rise, and shark fin soup isn't as popular around young Asians as it once was.
The U.S. is taking steps to eliminate the discard of the shark carcass at sea with the introduction of the Shark Conservation Act of 2009.