Over the course of seven weeks last fall, workers in Costa Rica allegedly filled 194 sacks with dried fins that had been sawed off the backs of an estimated 15,000 sharks. In six separate shipments weighing one ton each, the fins flew over the Pacific Ocean, miles above the waves. When they finally reached their destination 10,000 miles away, the small gray triangles were unloaded, sack by sack, and dropped into soups across Hong Kong.
The company hired to ferry the fins across the ocean to Hong Kong is the biggest delivery company on Earth: United Parcel Service, or UPS. And despite outcry, UPS isn't saying how many more shipments of shark fin it makes—or whether it has plans to stop.
According to an export certificate by Costa Rica's National Animal Health Service, UPS isn't shipping just any old shark fin, either. The documents show that, working with China Airlines, UPS shipped the fins of several species of shark that are considered "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. The listing connotes that the species is facing "a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future."
UPS reportedly carried thresher shark and smooth hammerhead, both listed as "vulnerable," and the blue shark, listed as "near threatened."
Some context: like countless other wildlife products, shark fins are very valuable. Just one kilogram can fetch $650 in Asian countries, where the demand is highest, according to the non-profit organization Shark Truth. The business has been growing in recent decades, too. In 1976, the total import value of shark fin products was about $20 million, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In 2014, it was as high as $419 million.
In Hong Kong alone, an estimated total of 26 million to 73 million fins are bought and sold every year, according to WildAid. The region accounts for approximately 50 percent of the global shark fin trade. Fins are mainly sought for flavoring in shark fin soup, a popular dish that's considered a delicacy and served at banquets and weddings.
The gruesome practice of shark finning, or the process of cutting a shark's fin off and throwing it back in the ocean to die, is generally considered inhumane and wasteful. Fins are necessary to keep the shark moving and to keep water moving over its gills — sharks without fins will die shortly after they're thrown back. But finning, to many conservationists, is one of a host of problems facing sharks—and the most pressing issue is the overall precipitous decline of sharks around the world. A 2014 paper published in the journal Marine Policy estimated that 97 million sharks were killed by fishing, bycatch and finning combined in 2010. Finning, the paper noted was only compounding this problem.
That being said, many conservationists are trying to stop the trade in shark products where they can. The result is a massive campaign that relies on brand-shaming as its most powerful tool. Led by Hong Kong-based photographer and conservationist Alex Hofford, the push began by targeting Asian airlines, where the market for shark fin soup was flourishing. After public pressure, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Cebu Pacific and over 20 other airlines announced that they would no longer ship shark fins.
Soon enough, the shark fin boycott moved west. After it was caught hauling loads of endangered shark meat through US ports, American Airlines Group, the world's largest airline group and owner of both American and US Airways, announced it was ending all shark fin shipments.
UPS, it appears, is the next target.
After a local Costa Rican organization called Pretoma found evidence that UPS was preparing to ship at least 30 90-pound sacks of shark fins—the equivalent of 4,000 sharks—out of Costa Rica, activists began to protest.
UPS issued a statement saying that the company "is strongly opposed to, and has a policy against, shipping products that involve the exploitation of endangered or protected species of any kind."
Now, UPS isn't hiding. When shown documents verifying that it had shipped fins of shark species considered "vulnerable" by the IUCN Red List, Kristen Petrella, UPS's public relations manager for sustainability, said that the company "received all required third party certifications for the shipment in question." Petrella acknowledged that her company is indeed shipping shark fins—though she says that doesn't include the fins of endangered species.
There's now a petition with nearly 170,000 signatures calling on UPS to stop carrying shark fins, and earlier this week a group of five conservation non-profits penned a letters to UPS demanding that the company end shipments.
Meanwhile, UPS wouldn't disclose just how many sacks brimming with shark fins it flies across the ocean every year. And unless someone finds a protected species among the bunch, the shipments are perfectly legal, Petrella explained.
"UPS ships shark fins that are legal to ship," she said.
Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.