Earlier this month, Motherboard obtained shipping documents that showed that United Parcel Service, or UPS, was shipping sackfuls of shark fins across oceans—just one of these shipments containing the fins of an estimated 15,000 sharks destined for Hong Kong, where demand for shark fin soup, considered a delicacy, is high.
UPS was shipping the fins of thresher shark and smooth hammerhead, both listed as "vulnerable," and the blue shark, listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Other documents show that the company was also shipping oceanic white tips, a protected species for which trade is tightly controlled.
"UPS' blanket ban on fin shipments will put a very large dent into the trade."
When pressed on the issue and presented with a petition with over 177,000 signatures, a spokesperson for UPS told Motherboard that the company "ships shark fins that are legal to ship."
But on Monday night, UPS finally caved. The company tweeted that it was joining a growing list of others that are refusing to ship shark fins.
Alex Hofford, a conservationist and photographer for WildAid who's been pressuring airlines and shipping companies to dump shark fin for years, told Motherboard that the move was a welcome victory.
"UPS has just proved to the world, that just because something is legal, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is either moral, ethical or sustainable," he said. "UPS' blanket ban on fin shipments will put a very large dent into the trade."
Hofford said that his campaign is moving on to DHL and FedEx, demanding that the companies to clarify their position on shark fin shipments. Activists have been taking this route for years, ticking off the companies that have dropped fin shipments one by one. Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, American Airlines, and US Airways are among the dozens to do so.
But there is a much greater problem here — one that's being largely ignored by a vocal community of internet activists, says marine biologist and shark expert David Shiffman. Shark finning, he told Motherboard, is a problem — but a small one. Compared with overfishing, the fin trade is tiny, though the media may not treat it that way.
"Finning is an increasingly small subset of the shark overfishing crisis that gets a disproportionate amount of attention," Shiffman said. "A focus by many activists on how sharks are killed (finning), or what you can do what sharks' bodies after they are killed (the fin trade), instead of how many sharks are killed (overfishing), is not helping threatened species to recover."
Shiffman's got a point. The global trade in shark meat is very different from the trade in shark fin, and they often interact is complex and unexpected ways. For instance, as a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization pointed out, a push for legislation to ban shark finning and the trade in fins over the last decade has actually resulted in a spike in the market for shark meat. While the global trade in shark fins has slightly decreased since 2000, the trade in shark meat has increased by 42 percent.
"Fishers [are] seeing sharks increasingly as commercial species to be actively targeted, rather than bycatch species landed unintentionally while targeting more-valuable species such as tuna or swordfish," the report reads.
That being said, many conservationists still argue that large companies like UPS shouldn't be participating in the shark fin trade. According to Hofford, a drop in the bucket is still progress.
"It will now be much, much harder to bring shark fin into Hong Kong, and so the traders will now have to resort to more inconvenient ways to bring their dirty product into Hong Kong," he said. "This may may push the price of shark fin up in the short term, potentially reducing the demand in Hong Kong further for this awful dish known as shark fin soup."
UPS' announcement is not, by any means, a deathblow for the shark trade—or a fix for the problems of the world's spiraling shark populations. With 100 million killed every year, the fate of sharks is terrifying—much more terrifying than sharks actually are.