WWF Report Reveals Scale of $2.6 Billion Global Shark Meat Trade

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Blue and mako sharks fillets next to swordfish (Photo: Heike Zidowitz/WWF)

The international shark-fin trade is widely condemned for its brutal and needless slaughter of millions of sharks every year, but a new report from WWF has revealed that the international trade in shark and ray meat for consumption is even higher than the shark fin trade.

Ahead of International shark awareness day on 14 July, WWF reports that the total value of the trade in sharks and rays between 2012-2019 exceeded US$4.1 billion, with the trade in shark fins comprising $1.5 billion of the total, and the combined value of the trade in shark and ray meat during the same time period worth at least $2.6 billion - more than $1 billion greater than the trade in fins alone.

According to the report, more than 200 countries and territories are importing and exporting shark and ray meat. While the trade in shark fins is most valuable to the Chinese market, with the highest value trade happening through Hong Kong, the global trade in shark and ray meat is much more widespread and greater in both volume and value than the trade in fins.

The report reveals that the shark meat market is dominated by Spain, which exported 183,884 tonnes of shark meat during 2009-2019, worth more than US$536 million, to 85 different countries or territories. The largest importer by volume during the same time period was Brazil, which brought in 149,484 tonnes of shark meat, although Italy ranked as the highest importer of shark meat by value at  more than US$344 million. 

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Stingray caught in fishing nets, Sardinia, Italy, 2008 (Photo: Wild Wonders of Europe/Staffan Widstrand/WWF)

Overall, the European Union has established itself as the main supplier of shark meat to the Southeast and East Asian markets, accounting for approximately 22 per cent of the global trade in shark meat. 

WWF's report says the trade in ray meat is 'less diversified', with the market dominated by Argentina as the top exporter (81,601 tonnes; $221 million) and South Korea the top importer (141,655 tonnes; $450 million) by both volume and value. 

With estimates of 100 million sharks each year being removed from the ocean, 36 per cent of all known shark and ray species are currently threatened with extinction, with some populations having been decimated by more than 96 per cent, and 31 species of oceanic sharks have seen their populations reduced by as much as 71 per cent in the last 50 years alone.

Simone Niedermueller of WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, said: 'We are eating more shark and ray meat than we realize, and this is happening everywhere, including in Europe, with serious consequences for some species already at risk of extinction. Sharks and rays are migrating more when they are dead than alive, as their meat crosses over 200 borders, with some Mediterranean and European countries playing key roles as importers and exporters, as well as consumers. It’s a global trade that requires management and transparency to tackle illegality and the rapid depletion of sharks and rays in our ocean.'

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It is not always so obvious to consumers that they are purchasing meat from sharks or rays (Photo: Dmitry Markov152/Shutterstock)

The report calls for better regulation and more transparency to prevent the over-exploitation of sharks and rays, and for targeted campaigns focused on the countries that form the most important 'trade bridges' for the shark meat network, identified as being between Japan and Spain, the UK and Spain, Portugal and Spain, Japan and Panama, and China and Japan.

The countries behind these trade bridges, says WWF 'have the greatest influence on how shark meat flows around world markets, and should be the primary focus for where to implement future regulatory measures such as better traceability systems and a stricter control of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities.'

The lack of regulation and tracing of shark and ray meat produce often means it is virtually impossible for consumers to know what fish they are purchasing, as shark and ray meat is often disguised and sold under different names. The report notes that DNA testing has found that 'Mediterranean swordfish' may well be mislabelled shark meat, 'saumonette' is used in France, 'Palombo' in Italy, and 'rock salmon' and 'flake' are staples of the UK takeaway market.

'Demand for shark fin is well-known as a driver for the overexploitation of sharks and rays, and fingers point at Asia, where shark fin soup consumption is highest. This new report spotlights a far larger global trade in shark and ray meat that many are unaware of,' said Andy Cornish, Leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, WWF’s global shark and ray conservation programme. 'The trade links are extensive, with an array of countries playing an active role, including several EU member states at the core of this network. All of these countries need to urgently adopt and implement regulations and controls for sustainable fisheries and traceability, to ensure that the trade is from properly managed and legally sourced stocks, that protected species are kept off the market, and consumers can make informed purchases.'

The complete WWF report 'Shark and Ray Meat: A Deep Into a Global Affair' can be downloaded from WWF's Media Pages


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