18 Feb Inside India’s illegal shark-fin trade
India is the world’s third-largest shark catcher. It banned the export of shark fins in 2015, but the illegal trade is still thriving. Shamsheer Yousaf & Monica Jha investigate
Late one August morning in 2018, an official at the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau received samples of what at first glance looked like dried fish, cut into small pieces. An exporter had moved a consignment to a warehouse at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust at Navi Mumbai, India’s largest container port.
The official regularly received random samples as part of his routine work. But while examining the samples, which had been declared as “dried cut pieces of stingray skin”, he had a feeling that something was wrong. “Over my years of work, I’ve developed an instinct,” the official said. “I felt that the exporter was attempting to conceal something.”
So, along with his colleagues, he went to the port to inspect the consignment, which comprised 200 bags. They opened and emptied the contents of all 200 bags on the floor.
There were some pieces of dried fish, similar to the samples. But among these pieces were triangular, distinctly different pieces of dried fish, with a matte texture.
“My instinct was right: these were shark fins,” the official recounted.
The exporter was in violation of Indian law – the Union government had banned the export of fins of all sharks on February 6 2015. “I advised the customs officials to confiscate the consignment,” the official said.
The case was handed over to the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), India’s premier law-enforcement agency to combat smuggling. It sprang into action, interrogating the exporter and investigating their trade network.
Based on the information the agency obtained, it raided the warehouse of the exporter, Global Impex Trading Company, in Mumbai’s Sewri neighbourhood. There, the agency confiscated 3,000kg of dried shark fins.
The DRI arrested Sharafat Ali, the proprietor of Global Impex, his brother Hameed Sultan, manager R Ahmed Asik and warehouse manager R Shivaraman. On questioning them, the agency received further information about the company’s operations in Veraval, a fishing harbour in Gujarat known for shark landings.
On September 2 a team from the Gujarat branch of the DRI raided a warehouse in Veraval and confiscated another 5,000kg of shark fins.
Still, there was more to come.
During the investigation, the DRI found out that the exporter had dispatched a container with 4,000kg of shark fins from Chennai, destined for Hong Kong. Following a request from Indian authorities, the container was offloaded in Malaysia and seized on September 4.
In a matter of days, nearly 12,000kg of shark fins were seized from one exporter. It was the largest seizure of shark fins since the export ban in 2015 and suggested that despite the ban, an illegal shark fin trade was thriving across India.
Shark fin is one of the most expensive fish products in the world.
According to a 2015 report of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, the price of shark fins exported from India increased five-fold between 2000 and 2009, but fell slightly by 2012.
The export ban has caused a further price drop, but the fin trade is still profitable. Kannan, a shark meat trader in Chennai, confirmed that this was the case in his city: “They still make good money. That’s why they continue the illegal business despite risks.”
India is the third-largest shark catcher in the world. With no domestic market for shark fins, almost all the fins from India end up in the international market. Hong Kong is India’s most important market for the fins.
A shark fin smuggled out of India usually ends up in a bowl of soup.
Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, considered a mark of a host’s wealth and refined taste. Dried fins are soaked in an acetic acid solution, after which the cartilage in them is separated into fin rays, which are noodle-like threads, and cooked to be served in a soup. More than flavours, the fins are known to provide a texture to the soup that is prized among its patrons.
This demand for shark fins is frequently cited as one of the significant drivers of shark fishing. A 2006 study in the journal Ecology Letters estimated that up to 73-million sharks are killed every year for the fin trade. A paper published in Nature in January 2021 found that since 1970, the number of oceanic sharks and rays across the world has declined by 71%, owing to a massive spike in fishing pressure.
In India, not everyone considers the fin trade a significant threat to sharks. Several marine biologists said India reports fairly low numbers of shark landings and fin exports. A 2015 report on shark conservation by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) in Kochi noted that the shark fin trade from the country was “not a matter of alarming priority”.
Under the Wildlife Protection Act, fishing and trading sharks is punishable only when it comes to four species: the whale shark, Pondicherry shark, Ganges river shark and the speartooth shark.
But the same report by the CMFRI notes that there has been a decline in shark numbers along the Indian coast, and that increased demand for sharks in international markets, especially for the fins, has driven up fishing. It also notes that more than half the species in Indian waters are threatened to some degree.
“One thing to note is that the fin trade targets large-bodied sharks,” said Divya Karnad, an assistant professor at Ashoka University, who has studied shark fisheries and the fin trade in India. “In the shark world, adult females grow larger than males, and, consequently, are targeted more. This can have a selective impact on population, as breeding is impacted.”
Moreover, there are indications that India underestimates its shark landings. While a 2019 CMFRI report on marine fish landings estimated that India caught 20,000 tonnes of shark in 2017, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated, using FAO data, that India caught an average of 67,000 tonnes of sharks every year between 2007 and 2017.
Many conservationists argue that more shark species need to be brought under protection, and that the Wildlife Protection Act list needs a review.
“There are many sharks caught in Indian waters that are not on the protected list, but are endangered. The list needs a revisit,” said E Vivekanandan, a former principal scientist at CMFRI.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty between 185 countries, lists 10 varieties of sharks under its protection list, some of them commercially exploited in Indian waters. While India is a signatory to the CITES convention, only one of these species, the whale shark, is protected under Indian law.
Thus, shark fishing is legal in India for now, barring the few protected species. Cutting and processing fins, transportation, and selling shark fins within the country are also entirely legal.
In 2013 the government determined that there was a need to protect the animal from exploitation and introduced a policy banning finning – the practice of catching a shark, extracting all its fins and throwing the shark back into the ocean to die. According to this policy, if a shark is fished, it has to be landed whole, with its fins naturally attached to its body. This is intended to ensure that sharks are not overfished solely to meet the demand for fins.
This was followed in 2015 by the ban on export of fins, upheld by a number of rulings of the High Courts of Kerala and Madras.
But, as the 2018 seizure showed, these measures did not shut down the fin trade. Other seizures have indicated this too. In 2017, for instance, Hong Kong officials seized an Indian consignment of 450kg dried fins of oceanic whitetip sharks.
This is also borne out by data from UN Comtrade, a repository of official international trade statistics. Analysis of this data shows a mismatch in data reported by India and by importing countries.
According to the data reported by Indian exporters, 167 tonnes of shark fins were exported between 2015 – the year the ban on shark fins was instituted – and 2020. (It is possible that some of these exports occurred during periods when the ban was stayed by courts, or that they were shipped from less vigilant ports – Comtrade data does not include breakdown by exact dates and companies.)
But the data from importing countries shows that this trade is much higher. Import data from 10 countries shows that 403 tonnes of shark fins were imported from India between 2015 and 2020. The bulk of this – 301 tonnes – was imported into Hong Kong. Another 68 tonnes of shark fins were imported into China. In effect, just these two importing countries have shown more than twice as much imports from India than India reported exporting overall.
There is also evidence of the thriving fin trade online. An online search showed several India-based firms still advertising on business-to-business portals, offering to export shark fins.
Further, the 2015 FAO report mentions consistent under-reporting of fin exports by up to 50% by Indian exporters. Another 2004 study looked at India’s shark landing data – based on the fact that India exports almost all the shark fins it produces, it concluded that fin exports were 2.24 times greater than export data indicated.
In Canacona taluka in Goa, the Pagi fishing community catches sharks every August. A seasonal fishing ban on the west coast in June and July results in less disturbance in the water, and allows sharks to approach closer to the shore, said Nitesh, a community leader.
“During this time, we usually catch sharks, besides mackerel and kingfish,” he said. “We catch a few big sharks, but most are between 1.5kg to 2.5kg.” The fins of bigger sharks are cut and dried separately.
“We dry them in open yards at our homes,” Nitesh said. “My mother has been drying shark fins for a long time and does this even today.”
He said traders usually come to his village from Mangalore or Mumbai around September every year. “We don’t know who exactly they are – they come to the village inquiring about shark fins, and we sell it to them.”
Like in many places along the coast, the fishing community here, too, is misinformed about the final purpose of the shark fins. Nitesh said shark fins are used to manufacture threads. “I don’t know how they do this, but I hear it’s used in hospitals for surgeries.”
The claim that fins are used to manufacture surgical threads to secure sutures was echoed by Ketan, a fish butcher in the municipal fish market in Margao, Goa’s second-largest city.
Ketan, who specialises in cutting and cleaning big fishes such as sharks and kingfish, uses a variety of knives – one to carve open the shark’s belly, another to remove the skin, and a third to carve the fins out. He too said these shark fins are sent to a company to make thread “for stitches to use in surgery.” He added, “Every week, a man from a company comes and collects the fins from me.”
Trisha Gupta, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, who is studying shark and ray fisheries in Goa, said she thought it “unlikely” that this was true. “I’ve done some online research, and haven’t come across anything about shark fins, or any other body part, being used for surgical threads, or anything similar,” she said. “It’s very possible that this is a story that’s being spread by fin traders to mask the true use and trade of these fins. But it definitely needs some further research.”
Nitesh and Ketan’s openness in talking about cutting, drying and selling fins was unusual. In most other places, fishers were wary of saying anything about the subject. After the ban, the police and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence have conducted several raids at storage sheds and processing units along both coasts, usually after finding links with attempted exports or seized consignments.
Since India has no domestic market for fins, a trader with a sizeable stock of fins is typically suspected of intention to export, even if no legal action can be taken unless the species is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act.
In Andhra Pradesh, fishers have always used beaches instead of harbours to land commercially important large-bodied sharks, said Meghana Binraj, a researcher who is studying the shark and ray trade in Andhra Pradesh. “For extra precaution, they do it during off business hours and often at night. They do this to avoid the increased vigilance.”
Even vendors who sell smaller sharks preserve the fins, though the demand for small fins is far lower.
“If they feel they’re being watched, they dump it in the trash bin but sift through it and collect it before they leave,” said Binraj.
The butcher cuts and collects fins in a basket placed next to his table by the buyer, who keeps an eye on him, said Binraj. The liver and jaws are also separated out during the cutting – the former used to make oil, the latter as artefacts. If there’s a pup inside, he has to slice open the mother without damaging the pup.
Fins are to be cut from a shark with minimum damage to the fin rays. “Traders don’t allow a new butcher to touch a big shark. Based on demand, the butcher makes different types of cuts,” said Binraj.
All eight fins – a pair of pectoral fins, a pair of pelvic fins, two dorsal fins, an anal fin, and a caudal fin – are sliced off. Butchers use a half-moon cut (a rounded cut at the base) in the case of the pectoral fin, and a straight cut for the dorsal fin.
While the shark meat is sold in regular markets, the fins are sold into networks of traders who deal specifically with them.
Once the fins have been sourced, they must be processed before they can be exported at higher prices.
The trader segregates the fins based on genus, size and type of fin (such as dorsal, and pectoral) – each of these has different demand and price. For instance, the fins of a whale shark or thresher shark fetch a much higher price than a nurse shark. White fins are in higher demand. Large fins are priced higher than small ones, and pectoral fins are priced higher than ventral fins.
It is usually the trader who does the processing – sun-drying the fins for four or five days. This is generally done at the trader’s home or at a storage facility.
Higher-level traders prefer not to store significant quantities in one place, to avoid trouble for themselves if there is a raid or seizure, said Binraj. “This is why they keep the processing and storing highly decentralised.”
In Mangalore, vendors at the dry fish market opposite the city bus stand talked about a trader who collected fins and dried them in the old harbour in the southern part of the city. A search for the trader ended up at the Fisheries College grounds, located behind a 180-year-old lighthouse. The drying yards were next to the meeting point of the Netravati and Phalguni rivers, where both rivers emptied into the Arabian sea.
The yards were lined with huts with tiled or asbestos roofs – some were covered only with tarpaulin sheets. The huts were separated by towering coconut palms. On coir mats laid on the ground, fish such as anchovies, mackerels and razorbelly scads were left to dry in the midday sun.
On enquiry, a woman led us past a few huts to the end of the yard. We arrived at a smaller yard cordoned off by asbestos sheets – the yard was covered overhead with a wire mesh, to keep birds out. On peeking through the gate, we could see that the yard was covered with coir mats, with sealed thermocol boxes and tarpaulin sheets strewn around. On the coir mats, about 20 shark fins, medium and large in size, were left to dry. Next to them lay five filled and tied plastic sacks.
The woman said the trader’s son handled the job of drying fins. The trader, she said, was from Kerala and had set up the drying yard about four years ago.
Within the country, these traders bear the greatest risk, since it is from the point that they enter the chain that the business becomes exclusively of fins. They often suffer losses due to seizures, as well as poor demand, or spoilage due to improper storage.
Such traders are usually small-time businessmen from outside fishing communities, said Binraj. “On Andhra Pradesh coast, there are 10 to 20 of these, and new ones are entering.”
Conversations with a dozen researchers indicated that Kochi and Veraval, which are the biggest landing centres for sharks, are also important sources for shark fins. But they also cited Chennai, Mangalore, Goa, Malvan in Maharashtra, Kolkata, Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, and Paradip in Odisha as places from which fins were sourced.
Fin traders form a tightly knit community, among whom information about stock and price travels instantly through WhatsApp.
When a large harvest lands in Veraval in Gujarat, a trader in Kakinada knows that his stock will see a price drop, said Binraj.
“So, he holds it till prices go up again,” she explained. “Every little detail of the trade from across India reaches him immediately on WhatsApp. The traders are very well connected.”
There are typically multiple levels of transactions between the first buyer of the fish and the exporter, said Binraj. “Usually, multiple primary buyers converge to one big trader in the city, who has links with higher-level buyers or exporters across India. In a few cases, auctions are arranged and exporters buy fins directly from primary buyers, removing the mid-level traders.”
After fins move through well-established networks, they are exported from a place that is often distant from where the sharks were landed. Kannan, the shark meat trader in Chennai, said that many shark buyers in Chennai sell fins to exporters based in Kerala while some still sell to Chennai-based exporters.
Virenbhai, a boatman in Veraval, said, “It’s usually traders from Tamil Nadu who buy fins from here. They export it out of a port in south India.”
“From what I’ve seen, there is only a 10% chance that fins extracted at a place will be exported from a nearby port,” Binraj said.
According to the FAO’s 2015 report, Chennai and, to a lesser extent, Mumbai serve as hubs from where shark fins collected from landing sites along the east and west coasts are exported.
“Before the export ban, we used to clear two-three consignments a week in Chennai,” said the official now posted at the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, Navi Mumbai. “Each was roughly 400-500kg of fins. Exports were also made from Mumbai and Kochi. Mangalore is another important port. Major established traders are based in Mumbai, Chennai and Kochi.”
According to data from Seair Exim Solutions, an Indian firm that maintains and sells import-export data, between 2015 and 2017, Marine Fins, a Kochi-based export firm, exported nearly 59 tonnes of fins. During the same period, another firm, Aquatic Fisheries, from Kozhikode, exported about 13 tonnes of fins.
In the aftermath of the ban, Marine Fins adopted an aggressive legal strategy over four years to receive multiple exemptions to continue exporting fins. According to data from Seair Exim Solutions, these included fins of the critically endangered bowmouth guitarfish, endangered shortfin mako, and vulnerable blacktip sharks.
First, in May 2015, the firm filed a petition in the Kerala High Court, challenging the ban on fin export, which the court stayed. The firm continued export during the stay. In March 2016, the court upheld the ban but ordered the government to consider the firm’s request to fulfil pending export obligations.
When the government denied the firm permission to export after the ban was upheld, Marine Fins sought the court’s permission to clear what they claimed was old stock accumulated before the ban. In April 2016, the court granted the company permission to do this. The company went back to the court to seek extension of the deadline twice – the court gave it time, first till December 2016 and later till April 2 2017.
Despite getting court orders to clear its declared fin stock by April 2 2017, Marine Fins had at least 6,442kg in its possession after this date, which was seized by Kochi City Police in July 2017.
In a March 2018 affidavit in the High Court, the company declared this amount in its possession and sought permission to export it. The court granted permission to export again, without giving the Indian government a chance to respond. This time, the court gave the company permission to export stock it had accumulated before December 31 2017 – though that date was two years after the ban was first notified.
The Indian government challenged the High Court’s ruling to allow export, in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ordered the High Court to revisit its order.
Finally, in March 2019, the Kerala High Court withdrew the exemption it had granted to the company and closed the case.
These events played out even as the Madras High Court, in September 2015, had dismissed a petition that challenged the ban on fin exports and rejected a petitioner’s plea to take into consideration the stay on the ban by the Kerala High Court. The Madras High Court observed that the Kerala High Court “has not decided finally, the validity of the notification.” It added, “Here, the pleadings are complete” and held that “the stay granted by another High Court is of no relevance to test the validity of the notification.”
Between 2015 and 2017, Marine Fins sold about 70% of its exports – nearly 41 tonnes – to Man Fung Sea Products Trading Company in Hong Kong. Man Fung has a history of buying fins of suspect origin in other countries. The Peruvian investigative journalism website OjoPúblico established that between 2015 and 2018, Man Fung Sea Products was one of the principal customers of the two largest companies involved in illegally trading shark fins in Peru. Questions emailed to Marine Fins about its business, and links to Man Fung, were not answered at the time of publication.
Fins are usually smuggled out of India to places like Hong Kong, China and Singapore by firms with export permissions for other goods. “They hide it among dry fish or mislabel the consignment as dry fish and send it,” said a dry fish trader from Veraval.
“Exporters receive specifications from buyers on the species, type and cut of fins,” Binraj said. “And, they pass this on to the traders and the fishers. The specification includes which species to look for, which parts of a shark are in demand, how to butcher a shark” – since the animal needs to be sliced differently to extract different parts.
Buyers also specify how the parts should be processed and packaged, Binraj explained. “Sometimes, they even tell which transportation routes to use,” she added.
For transport, traders use both sea and air routes. The more expensive air route is increasingly common. In 2015-’16, during a period when the Kerala High Court had stayed the export ban, out of 30 consignments exported from Kochi, 25 used the air route.
Exporters “don’t care about the higher expenses”, said a DRI official in Bengaluru. “By air, the consignment reaches the buyer faster, and senders can heave a sigh of relief and get paid quickly.” This is important, he added, since most buyers pay only after they receive the material.
Another tactic is using “ant smugglers” – individuals who smuggle smaller quantities in luggage on international flights. News reports and DRI press releases document seven cases of shark fin seizures at Chennai airport between August 2018 and October 2020, when ant smugglers attempted to sneak out shark fins in their luggage. The latest case was in October 2020, while international travel was restricted due to Covid-19.
With enhanced scrutiny at established ports from which fins are known to be smuggled, such as Chennai and Kochi, new export points are emerging within India. “Within Andhra Pradesh now, I see a major exporter operating out of Vizag,” said Binraj.
Some researchers and traders said Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu was emerging as a big domestic hub for the fin trade, due to high vigilance in Chennai.
More surprisingly, Bengaluru, 350km from the sea, has seen cases of illegal export of shark bones. In September-October 2018, the DRI seized 1,600kg of shark bones that were to be exported out of Bengaluru airport.
On why the exporters chose the city as the exit port for their consignment, a DRI official said, “In Bengaluru, we’re nowhere close to the sea and nobody knows about shark product smuggling. We had never seen or expected to see dried shark fins or bones. When I got the tip off, I wasn’t very aware of how the trade operates. And this is exactly why the smugglers chose this route. They were looking for a weaker port.”
Internationally, too, exporters are adapting as scrutiny on established centres increases. According to an official at the Customs Air Intelligence Unit at Chennai airport, since Hong Kong is a known market for fins, vigilance on consignments from India heading to Hong Kong is high. In response, smugglers are sending fins to new interim destinations, from where they are then sent to Hong Kong.
The emerging destination that traders most frequently mentioned was Sri Lanka. A shark meat exporter from Kochi told us that a few traders smuggle fins via Sri Lanka. Virenbhai, the boat owner in Veraval, also said traders from South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, visit the town to pick up fins and export them to Hong Kong through Sri Lanka. This was corroborated by an official from the Kerala fisheries department.
In 2018 Hong Kong Customs officials seized 42kg of shark fins from a Sri Lankan consignment, suspected to be that of hammerhead sharks. The source of fins wasn’t established, but the seizure pointed to Sri Lanka’s emergence as a centre of the fin trade.
Other unusual transit points have also emerged. In October 2020, despite travel restrictions owing to Covid-19, Chennai’s Customs Air Intelligence Unit officials 23.5kg of shark fins from two passengers. The fins were destined for Dubai, which has no known fin market.
Hong Kong reported several seizures of dried fins coming from the UAE between 2015 and 2019. The 2018 report on Hong Kong’s wildlife trade lists UAE as a prominent exporter of fins – only preceded by Peru, Panama and India.
Karnad explained that the emergence of Dubai, as well as Abu Dhabi, as a destination was a relatively recent phenomenon. “In recent years, there have been cases of shark fin seizures reported in Maharashtra and Gujarat bound to Dubai,” she said. “From there, presumably, it is going to South East Asia.”
Despite how lucrative the fin trade is in India, there are instances where communities have moved away from shark fishing. Prominent among these is the fishing community of Thoothoor, a small coastal village in Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, whose residents are the best known shark fishers in the country.
In the past decade, conservationists raised awareness in the village about the potential risks of shark extinction. This, coupled with laws against exports and increased vigilance around shark fishing, led many traditional shark fishers in Thoothoor to move to tuna fishing, according to Yugraj Singh Yadava, director of Bay of Bengal Programme, an intergovernmental organisation that works on coastal fisheries management. Yadava said the community was enthusiastic about the plan once they recognised that it took their needs into account.
“The fishers expressly supported the need for developing a management plan for the shark fishery, although livelihoods and economics concerns weighed heavily in their expressions,” said Yadava. “For a conservation plan to be successful, the fishing community has to come on board with it.”
In part using the knowledge they gained in Thoothoor, the Bay of Bengal Programme submitted a plan for the management and conservation of shark fisheries in India to the government in December 2015. It is yet to receive approval.
Some government programmes have also seen success. The Gujarat government, for instance, partnered with NGOs and fishing communities to devise a scheme to conserve whale sharks, which are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. In this scheme, fishermen who cut their nets to release whale sharks alive are compensated for the loss of their nets.
A Maharashtra government scheme, too, compensates fishers for safely releasing a protected shark.
In Gujarat, 527 whale sharks have been released since 2004 under the conservation plan. Meanwhile, Maharashtra’s scheme has resulted in releases of at least 15 sharks since 2018.
The 2018 Mumbai case involving 12,000kg of fins didn’t reach a satisfactory conclusion, in the opinion of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau official.
When he sent the samples to a lab, it determined that the fins mostly belonged to blacktip sharks. Though listed as vulnerable under the IUCN red list of threatened species, they are not protected under Indian law, and the offenders couldn’t be prosecuted under the Wildlife Protection Act. Though there were 12,000kg of shark fins under the scanner, the only recourse left for the government was to file a case under the Customs Act.
The case was heard by the Additional Director General (Adjudication), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Mumbai in April 2019. An undisclosed fine was imposed on Global Impex Trading under Section 114(i) of the Customs Act (1962), which imposes a penalty [not exceeding three times the value of the goods as declared by the exporter or the value as determined under the Act, whichever is greater], for export of prohibited goods.
“The offenders paid a paltry fine, and the case was over,” the official said. While he was disappointed that the offenders got off lightly, he did believe it was a significant blow to the fin smuggling network.
“Imagine how much time and effort it would have taken for the racket to accumulate 12,000kg of fins,” he said. “Generally, a few people take the export risk – others just feed into this racket. So, each crackdown counts. The seizure was a big loss to them.”
But he is uncertain about the current status of fin smuggling. “Covid made the last two years very difficult – it is hard to assess what’s happening on the ground, with fewer inspections and raids,” he said. “The only bright side is that the transportation network was down too, so people might have accumulated fins but not be able to export them.”
* All names of those involved in the shark trade, as well as law enforcement officials, have been changed on request.
This investigation is part of a series on environmental crime in Asia, supported by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism and the Henry Nxumalo Foundation. It was first published on Scroll.in here.
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