Fish & Fisheries

Sympathy for the Shark Finner

A Caribbean Reef Shark patrols the water column among horse eye jacks. Photo © Jeff Yonover
A Caribbean Reef Shark patrols the water column among horse eye jacks. Photo © Jeff Yonover

The gruesome Facebook photo showed a dead rhino with its horn hacked off, blood splattered on the grass. Unfortunately, images like this frequently appear on my feed, as I follow a lot of global conservation causes. And yet, I still have a visceral reaction.

Judging by the comments, so do many others:

“What kind of a person does this?”

“There’s a special place in hell for those who do this to innocent wildlife.”

“Pure evil.”

I nodded along to the outrage. And then I recalled that time I met a shark finner.

Like rhino poaching, shark finning draws particular ire from conservationists. As it should. It’s a particularly brutal and unsustainable practice, one that involves catching sharks solely for their fins. Those working the boats cut the fins off living sharks, then toss the bleeding, helpless and still alive sharks back into the sea. And this is done solely to make soup with imagined healing properties.

Not only is it cruel, it is devastating populations of the ocean’s large predators.

Imagine a person who does this for a living. I am sure you are picturing a brutal, sadistic man, one oblivious or even contemptuous of the suffering of other creatures. You may very well call such a person evil.

You’d be wrong.

A Blacktip reef shark, Charcharhinus melanopterus, has been killed for its fins which will be sold in Asia for soup. Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean. Photo © Ethan Daniels
A Blacktip reef shark, Charcharhinus melanopterus, has been killed for its fins which will be sold in Asia for soup. Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean. Photo © Ethan Daniels

Meeting the Shark Finner

Several years ago, I met a shark finner while on a conservation fellowship to the Federated States of Micronesia. I showed up at the office of the Micronesia Conservation Trust, a local leader in establishing marine protected areas, to report on some of their conservation successes. The conversation led to local fishing practices, and the challenges of enforcing protected areas.

I had traveled to Pohnpei, a remote island in the Federated States of Micronesia, to report on marine protected areas and other reef conservation work being led by the Conservancy and our partners.

But even as they described the challenges, the staff emphasized that the fishers were not violating rules to be destructive. “I understand completely where they’re coming from,” a young man named Roseo said. “I was one of them.”

I asked Roseo how he came to be a conservationist. He looked at me sheepishly and paused before responding.

Drying shark fins in the Papagaran village of Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Photo © Maya Gorrez/The Nature Conservancy
Drying shark fins in the Papagaran village of Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Photo © Maya Gorrez/The Nature Conservancy

“I began my career working on shark finning boats,” he said. “I was the one who cut the fins off the sharks.”

Chopping Fins

I had a difficult time picturing this soft-spoken, gentle and passionate conservationist standing on deck with a bloody machete.

At age nineteen, a fishing company offered Roseo a scholarship to serve as a trainee on a Japanese fishing boat. It seemed like an opportunity to begin a career. Within a month, he began chopping fins.

“If I had said no, I would have ended up in the ocean,” he said, matter of fact. “The work was tough. It was a very harsh life. Sometimes the Micronesians on the boat were treated little better than the sharks. After a while, though, I got used to it.”

There was little opportunity for introspection, and he believed he was helping his country develop its fisheries.

“We didn’t know the value of sharks; we didn’t know how they fit into the ecosystem,” he said.

Eventually, Roseo realized he could chart a better life pursuing a college degree.

“It was an important experience for me. I don’t think I would be here, working to conserve our marine life and coral reefs, if I hadn’t been on that ship,” he said. “I feel bad about what I did. But I still understand why young men might sign up to work on a shark finning boat.”


Whitetip Reef Shark and Moray, photographed in the waters of Kimbe Bay, off the northern coast of New Britain, West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo © Jeff Yonover

Easy Villains

Conservationists get justifiably upset at the images of wildlife poaching and exploitation. Too often, we also seek easy villains. Shark finners—plus rhino poachers, seal clubbers, whalers and illegal loggers—make convenient bad guys.

Social media makes it easier to sit and vent. I am willing to bet that the title of this story alone will generate horrible comments about shark finners – many Facebook users won’t bother to read the story, and will assume they know all they need to know about someone who would harm animals.

This approach doesn’t help sharks (or rhinos or orangutans or any other creature).

Oftentimes, those working such jobs are not violent or uncaring people. For many reasons, they’re doing what they feel they have to do to survive, to make a better life for themselves and their families. Sometimes, they’re literally forced into the work – and refusing could prove fatal.

It’s too easy for environmentalists—so often living lives of comfort and ease—to direct their rage at these people working in distant lands. The harder work is looking at the economic drivers and the cultural practices that create a market for shark fins and rhino horns. Creating solutions that protect not only wildlife but people who live with that wildlife is never easy. But it is necessary if we’re going to protect endangered species.

And we need to turn the mirror to ourselves: to understand how we too, in myriad ways large and small, contribute to the destruction of wildlife and wild places.

It may provide temporary relief to post your outrage over a dead shark on social media. But that won’t save a single shark. We need to understand both the problem and the people involved.

And that requires extending empathy not only to sharks, but also to shark finners.

Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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11 comments

  1. There is always two sides to a story. Thanks for sharing the other side of this one.

  2. Very few of us who lead relatively comfortable lives in the US, have the experience of living & surviving in a country where the lives & experiences are so different from us. And yeah, the answer is to somehow put a stop to these practices – shark finning & mutilating wildlife for profit. But finding that answer takes a lot more than criticism – and Facebook posts! Social media may have been progress in some ways – but it allows far too many to post anonymous blasts at anything they disagree with & frankly, does nothing to solve the problems. THATS not progress! Very good article.

  3. At a certain point in the chain of supply, there is someone who knows very well the value of sharks and is doing this anyway. It’s easy to have empathy for the fellow with the knife, their constraints I can imagine. They are the infantry in this war on nature. It’s the boat-owner, the meat distributor in the suit – they have access to the big picture and more choices. They probably aren’t scraping pennies together to go to school – they have plenty of money and still….they support this industry. They participate in it. There will always be a poor and desperate person willing to fin a shark because they don’t see a better choice – but why does there need to be a predatory middleman willing to exploit them? Yes, they have a boss that says do it or else, and they have a boss and so on – there is your villain.

  4. Frankly I couldn’t care less for the motivations of these people. Sharks are going down the drain and just like the rhino poachers I’d rather see them all shot than seeing a single additional rhino (or shark) die for such a stupid trade top continue. I live in a developing country where this kind of fake argument is used to PROMOTE environmental crimes, and these articles trying to pin environmental devastation on ” social problems” are just a distraction from the issue. I fail to see the point of pretending that sympathy for environmental criminals helps in any way to solve the problems. TNC can and should do better than joining this leftist demagoguery bandwagon.

  5. The problem you raise is actually one of cultures and cultural clashes. A culture is a set of ideas you usually get while you’re growing up. They tell you what behaviour is good and what is bad and they are learned within relationships, by example more than instruction, so they are attitudes with strong emotions attached. That’s why they are usually hard to change, as well as supported by the circumstances described by Miller. It’s easy, as he says, for those of us who share a culture that broadly disapproves of hurting animals, domestic or wild, to disapprove of the way some people treat animals. But when has that disapproval changed behaviour? How many Japanese have stopped eating whale meat, so their ships have stopped hunting whales, because some people from different cultures disapprove of these culturally acceptable behaviour? We have known how to change cultures for at least decades, when there began attempts to stop racist attitudes between white and black Americans. The first and essential ingredient is education that chisels away at the myths and misguided beliefs that support the undesirable attitudes. This requires science-based information that, for example, neither shark fin soup nor extract from rhinoceros horn have any real health promoting value. Then you can introduce alternative science-based ways of achieving the original goals. Lasting cultural change requires factual bases, respect for others understandable if erroneous attitudes, identifying the established goals of existing cultural attitudes and introduction of and support for acceptable ways of achieving those goals. In other words, taking a righteous stand against some of the practices we see in other cultures may make us feel good and get us some pride and acceptance in our own culture, but is unlikely to produce the changes we hope to see. They require science-based, long-term and respectful efforts. Showing respect for other cultures does not involve never helping them to change in ways that will ultimately be good for them. Cultures are not set in concrete, they change all the time. Not long ago the man of the house literally owned his wife and children. Not any more. More recently, the majority in our culture decided that two people of the same gender could legally marry each other. Cultures can change for the benefit of the majority when we question the traditional beliefs keeping us stuck and find more effective ways of achieving our goals.

  6. So, so true. Unfortunately, in my experience, most commitments or efforts to “improve lives” are token, misguided and unsustainable/short-lived at best. Rather than being systemic and ongoing, these efforts tend to be driven by some NGOs’ ongoing quests for the next source of short-term grant funding. I’m very interested in hearing from others who have had different experiences…

  7. You are just proving the point that there will be no ecological salvation for man without world wide SOCIALISM.