How 100 MILLION sharks are butchered every year including having fins brutally hacked off while still alive to make soup
BELOW the deck of a notorious poaching vessel off the coast of Liberia,coast guard soldiers find a scene of unimaginable gore.
The ship's freezer is filled with the bodies of sharks with their fins hacked off – in a single 15-day voyage, its crew can butcher 66,000 sharks.
Fishermen take the fins because they are extremely valuable, making up around $380million of the $1billion-a-year shark product trade.
Fins are particularly prized for their use in shark fin soup, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine.
The trade is often unregulated and, in many cases, barbaric – some vessels cut sharks' fins off while they're still alive before throwing them back in the water to drown.
Every year, around 100million sharks are killed as a result, with their livers, skin, and cartilage also valuable commodities – some species' population have collapsed by over 90 per cent.
Filmmaker Eli Roth explores the gruesome shark trade in his new film Fin on Discovery+ for Shark Week.
As well as the sharks' suffering, the bloodbath has horrific consequences on communities in some of the poorest places on Earth – not to mention on the future of the ocean.
"An ocean without sharks is a very, very scary thought," Gary Stokes of conservation group Sea Shepherd says in the film.
"Once we remove all those sharks, everything else will go into anarchy."
'Worst thing I've ever seen'
Finning happens all over the world – often in sickening circumstances.
Off the coast of Los Frailes, Mexico, Roth witnesses mako sharks being caught for their fins.
The predators are hooked and dragged to the surface of the water where fishermen beat them to death with baseball bats before hauling them into the boat.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so horrible done to an animal live," Roth says in the film.
"It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen."
Returning to the shore, fishermen slice the fins off their catch on the sand – after drying for 10 days, they can get around £50 per kilo for fins by selling to a company that supplies demand in China.
You are not going to be able to fish that many sharks in ten years
“These people, it’s one of the only resources they have,” conservationist Regina Domingo tells Roth.
“The fins are worth a lot of money. But what they need to understand is you are not going to be able to fish that many sharks in ten years.”
The astonishing demand for shark fins is driven in part by the status symbol of shark fin soup in China.
Around 17,000 tonnes of shark fins are shipped to Hong Kong each year, equating to over 23million dead sharks.
While finning itself isn't illegal, it becomes so when endangered species are caught and killed – but suppliers often mislabel which species their fin come from.
DNA tests show around a quarter of the fins on the market in Hong Kong from are from endangered or illegal sharks.
Tastless cartilage soaked in bleach
Shark fin soup became a popular dish to serve at weddings in the 1960s as a glamorous status symbol – it can now cost upwards of £70 a bowl.
But the reality of how shark fin soup gets to the table is far from glamorous.
Fins can be dried in extremely insanitary conditions, including on public pavements.
"This is what I call gutter food," Stokes says of shark fins. "It’s lying there in a gutter next to dog s**t, next to cigarette butts and rat poison."
People love it because it is expensive
Because shark fins also have an unappetising yellow colour and revolting smell, they're also sometimes treated with toxic chemicals like bleach to make them more edible.
And even then, the soup is made with stock from other animals to make it taste nice.
"Shark fin tastes of nothing," food critic Chua Lam tells Roth. "It is a very bad ingredient.
"People love it because it is expensive. That’s it."
Ground into oil in floating 'dungeon'
The truly horrific practice of finning at sea – where live sharks have their fins cut off and are then thrown back overboard to drown – is illegal in 56 countries.
But it remains legal in most of southeast Asia and finning on land isn't illegal in most places as long the shark's whole body is harvested and not discarded at sea.
As a result, all sorts of different products made from sharks are now highly valuable commodities.
Shark cartilage, for example, was initially sold as an anti-cancer medication based on the myth that sharks don't get cancer.
And their meat is sold as food, despite the fact it has been shown to contain high levels of mercury which can lead to reproductive failure and even death in humans.
And their livers are now extremely profitable when turned into oil.
It’s literally a dungeon where they’re being ground into oil
The oil is used in omega 3 capsules and also cosmetic products like lip stick, moisturiser and sun cream – and some of the world's poorest communities are robbed because of the huge commercial demand.
West African countries lose an estimated £250million a year to illegal fishing, where foreign poachers plunder poor countries' fish stocks.
In the hull of one ship illegally fishing off the coast of Liberia, Sea Shepherd found an industrial fish oil production facility.
According to documents found on board, the crew were conservatively responsible for killing half a million sharks a year to turn their livers into oil.
"You read on these websites that ‘we’re clean, traceable, ecofriendly, sustainable’," Roth says as after boarding the ship with Sea Shepherd.
"You come down here and it’s literally a dungeon where they’re being ground into oil, thrown in the basement, and then people rub it in their face."
'Barbaric and insane'
Despite fishing in African waters, the liver oil producing ship was actually owned by a company in Spain.
Along with Indonesia, Spain is the world's top shark exporting nation, with others in the top ten including Brazil, Nigeria, and the USA.
Sea Shepherd says government subsidies to commercial fishing make it artificially cheaper to fish for longer and farther than would otherwise be possible.
That in turn enables illegal and unregulated fishing practices which target deep sea sharks.
But sharks are killed for sport too, including in fishing tournaments along the eastern seaboard of the US.
They’re doing this for fun and bragging rights on their Facebook page
At one, Roth witnesses porbeagle and thresher sharks – both of which are vulnerable – being hacked up with saws and machetes.
Organisers justify the killing in the name of inspiring conservation and collecting scientific data.
"These aren’t starving fishermen," Roth says. "These are doctors, lawyers, businessmen.
"They’re doing this for fun and bragging rights on their Facebook page.”
Roth adds: "To me, it’s barbaric and insane."
Despite the work of activists to stop sharks being killed in such unsustainable numbers, the massacre continues.
Scientists project that if current fishing trends continue, there will be a total collapse of all major fisheries by 2048 – shark populations being decimated could accelerate the catastrophe.
Boris Worm, a marine ecologist, explains that sharks provide crucial balance in ecosystems, with disastrous consequences when they're killed off.
"When sharks are taken away, we see that balance change," Dr Worm says.
"We see large negative changes in ecosystems that often cannot be reversed easily."
Fin is available to stream from Tuesday 13 July on Discovery+
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