Earlier this week, flagship carrier Air China announced a commitment to banning the transport of shark fin. The policy change has been applauded by conservationists, and it's certainly welcome news – but here are a few things you should know about it.

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The policy change is the first of its kind for mainland China and the 36th globally. Image: Wikimedia Commons

1. Will this deliver a direct hit to the fin trade?

No (but stay with us).

Several media reports have suggested that Air China's decision will deliver a "blow to the international trade", but the overwhelming majority of fins that reach China and other major hubs arrive by sea, not by air. Even if all of the word's airlines banned fin cargo, the result would be more of blip than a kill strike to the global fin trade. The supply chain could merely be shifted around it.

2. Then does this matter at all?

Absolutely! Regardless of its immediate impact, the decision is part of an emerging, positive shift in China's approach to environmental issues.

The Chinese government has banned shark fin soup from all state banquets, and according to the WWF, fifty companies also opted to stop serving the delicacy at corporate functions last year. Thirty hotels and restaurants removed it from their menus. Although the market price for shark fin has fluctuated, it remains significantly lower today than ten years ago. 

Shark fin certainly hasn't fallen completely out of fashion, but a move like this by a major Chinese company sends a potentially powerful message. 

"We were one of the first airlines in China to raise the awareness of the unsustainability of the global shark trade," Air China said in an official statement. "We understand the community's desire to promote responsible and sustainable marine sourcing practices, and this remains important to Air China Cargo's overall sustainable development goals."

The news comes just a week after China announced plans to shut down its domestic ivory trade – and, like that landmark move, this ban hinges on strict enforcement.

3. CITES, FedEx and the facts

Following Air China's announcement, conservation organisation WildAid – whose 2006 demand-reduction campaign featuring basketball star Yao Ming helped bring the fin trade to public attention in China – sent a letter to the US Government urging it to follow suit. 

The letter pointed out that American multinational courier service FedEx has yet to ban fin cargo, a decision WildAid described as "irresponsible, unsustainable and likely illegal under CITES".

As the week progressed, that statement was republished by major outlets like The Washington Postand inspired a handful of online petitions. The push against FedEx in particular, however, has been mounting for some time. UPS, one of the company's largest competitors, banned shark fin in August of 2015.

But let's dig a little deeper.

You might be surprised to learn that the export of shark fins is not illegal. What is mostly illegal is the practice of shark finning: the inhumane and horribly wasteful act of removing a shark's fins at sea and then dumping the animal overboard to drown. The latter is against the law in the United States and nearly 100 other countries

However, not all fins that enter the global trade are the result of this practice, and countries that export shark fin are not automatically participating in illegal or unsustainable activity. 

But what about CITES, you say? While it's true that some sharks – most recently silky and thresher sharks – are protected by Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it doesn't follow that trade in their fins is prohibited.

A CITES Appendix II listing signifies that a species may become threatened with extinction unless "trade is closely controlled". It represents a tightening of the reins, but not a complete ban on trade. Instead, fins from listed species must be accompanied across international boundaries by special permits, and must meet capture and sustainability regulations.  

When UPS implemented its ban in 2015, it had just come under media fire for a shipment that included the fins of vulnerable species. Yet the cargo was accompanied by the right permits and contained no contraband. Still, the brand shaming proved powerful enough to end the company's involvement in the trade altogether. 

Neither the US government nor any American company, however, is actually breaking CITES rules by continuing to export fins. The same is true for the EU and other nations worldwide. 

Of course, at their core, WildAid's concerns in this area are warranted. Enforcing CITES regulations is a great challenge, and fins do indeed "sneak" into the trade without the correct permits. What's more, unscrupulous traders can sidestep regulations in many ways. In the past, vague labels – like "seafood" or "dried seafood" – have been used to slip shady fin shipments past carriage bans.

Sleuthing out illegal product is becoming easier, however. We've discovered that threatened, CITES-listed species can be identified by their dorsal fins, and genetic testing can even enable officials to determine the origins of illicit fin shipments.

4. To ban or not to ban? That is the question

Fin bans are a fiery topic in marine conservation, and you'll find experts on both sides of this debate.

You might remember that Florida legislators recently put forward a bill, originally presented to Congress by advocacy group Oceana, that would make the export of shark fin illegal in the US. Many conservation organisations backed the bill, saying it would help slash the supply of fins to global markets.

Some have also suggested that an export ban by influencer nations like the US could pressure major suppliers to do the same. However, China, Indonesia and other major fin producers also happen to be the major consumers, and have little incentive to jump on a fin-ban bandwagon. It could be argued, however, that a US ban might put it in a credible position to criticise the fin trade as a whole.

As for the supply chain, would a US ban really have a strong impact? The figures, for a start, say no.

Between 2000 and 2011, the US exported an average of 171 tonnes of shark fin per year – making it the seventh-largest supplier in the world. It sounds significant, but consider that the top producer, China, exported an average of 6,594 tonnes and imported 10,480. For that time period, the total average export per year was 17,562 tonnes. The US market share was less than 1%.

And there are several other reasons why the majority of researchers say we should look beyond a fin ban. With or without it, they argue, there is another, much more pressing threat to these top predators: overfishing. That’s why saving them hinges on ensuring that shark fishing is legal and sustainable.

"Certainly, there are significant conservation issues associated with the global shark fin trade, but the claim that sustainable exploitation of sharks is impossible is not correct," says shark biologist Dr David Shiffman, who recently surveyed expert shark researchers on this topic. Ninety percent of them agreed.

Shark meat is a key source of protein for people in many parts of the world: South and Central America, Asia and parts of Africa are the largest consumers. The latest official figures show that imports are on the rise, likely driven by the need to supply global demand for seafood as other fish stocks decline.

"Stopping shark fishing would have dramatic effects on food security," argues Dr Colin Simpfendorpher, co-chair of the IUCN shark specialist group. "And replacing it with land-based animal protein would place a lot more pressure on terrestrial ecosystems." 

The oceans are home to over 400 shark species, and some of them handle fishing pressure quite well under the right circumstances. But in some countries, the shark-fishing rulebook hasn't been updated for decades or – in the most extreme cases – centuries. This needs to change.

To stop overfishing, countries need to set and respect appropriate catch limits, target non-threatened species, limit the major threat of accidental bycatch, and observe seasonal closures. Using as much of each shark caught as possible is also key. That means making use of the entire animal – meat, oil and fins. 

Supporters of fin bans don't always oppose shark fishing, but would still prefer to see fins discarded – much like the burning of ivory stockpiles. For many experts, on the other hand, that’s a wasteful prospect. All of this gives the debate an extra ethical dimension.

There is also mounting concern that outright bans would unduly penalise poor fishing communities that depend on sharks for their livelihood. Without alternatives, they would likely continue to hunt these animals regardless.

"The view that banning fins will fix the crisis that sharks are facing is naïve," says Simpfendorpher. "It is only by addressing fisheries issues that we can fix that. Dealing with shark fins is part of this, but it is only a component."

A conservation approach that focuses solely on fins also ignores the plight of animals like skates and rays, one of the most overfished groups on this planet. 

The biggest challenge to achieving sustainable fisheries, of course, is enforcement. But most shark scientists believe that it can happen on a large scale. In locations where strict fishing and border control laws have been implemented well, like Australia and the US, shark numbers are beginning to bounce back. 

5. How can your voice be heard and how can you help sharks?

Regardless of where you stand in this complex debate, signing internet petitions (or engaging in arguments on social media) is not the best way to make your voice heard – or to help sharks.

There are a number of better options. You can donate to shark research, adopt a shark, or participate in shark spotting, ocean cleanup and other shark-related citizen-science projects. You can also engage in the consultation process for new laws and policies. Write your elected officials. Don't know who they are? Most government websites have detailed contact forms.

Educate yourself and keep up to date with reliable sources. Don't know who they are? Shark Advocates InternationalIUCN Shark Specialist Group, Southern Fried Science and the many researchers, NGOs and labs on this list are a good place to start. 

Don't want to donate, clean, read or write? Eating sustainable seafood is one of the best things you can do to protect the future of sharks and ocean ecosystems as a whole.


Top header image: Angelo Taotaotasi, Flickr