Sharks and rays “migrate” 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.
While shark fins are generally much more expensive than shark meat, WWF’s new analysis estimates that between 2012 and 2019 US$2.6 billion of shark and ray meat was traded globally, with Spain being the world’s top exporter (to 85 different countries and territories), Italy the top importer, and the EU accounting for about 22% of the global shark meat trade.
Demand for shark fin in Asia, where shark fin soup consumption is highest, is a well-known driver for the overexploitation of sharks and rays. This new report spotlights a far larger, complex and opaque global trade in shark and ray meat that many are unaware of but which feeds overfishing and species depletion.
WWF’s analysis reveals not only the major importers and exporters of shark and ray meat, but also the traders playing essential roles as intermediaries. For shark meat, the most important trade bridges are between Japan and Spain, UK and Spain, Portugal and Spain, Japan and Panama, and China and Japan.
The global trade network for ray meat is less diversified, with trade between Argentina as an exporter and South Korea as an importer dominating the market. But some European countries are key for the stability of the ray trade network, and have an important role to play in regulating it.
This is where the international efforts should be focused to implement better management and increase transparency to tackle illegality and in the long-term, help restore shark and ray populations, which have suffered dramatic drops.
Today, sharks and rays are in crisis globally. Up to 100 million are killed each year in fisheries of all kinds, and some populations have declined by more than 95% as a result of overfishing. 36% of the more than 1,200 known shark and ray species are threatened with extinction.
While overfishing is the main threat to these animals, other issues are worsening an already alarming status of sharks and rays in our ocean. Among these are the effects of climate change as well as plastic pollution, with animals ingesting plastic items or becoming entangled in them. Seafood fraud is yet another problem – DNA testing has shown that many consumers who think they’re eating swordfish, for example, will in fact be tucking into a plate of illegally marketed shark meat. Mislabelling, including selling sharks and rays under misleading names, is also widespread.
WWF is asking consumers to avoid buying or eating shark and ray meat unless from sustainable and traceable sources. However, very few products currently available in the market meet these requirements and significant improvements in sustainability and traceability are needed.