Published 15 August 2007


Chips are down for South Africa’s sharks

Cape Town, South Africa, 15 August 2007—The Australian appetite for fish-and-chips is having an unknown impact on South Africa’s shark populations and closer monitoring of the trade is essential, according to a new report published today by TRAFFIC.

After filleting in South Africa, the shark meat is exported to Australia for the fish-and-chip trade. © Markus Burgener / TRAFFIC. 

Authors Charlene Da Silva of Rhodes University and TRAFFIC’s Markus Bürgener analysed eight years’ worth of statistics on demersal (bottom-living) sharks traded between South Africa and Australia. They found there is limited management of shark populations in South Africa, limited monitoring and regulation of the catch, and no knowledge of the impact this could be having on the conservation status of the species harvested.

“Too little is recorded about the level of trade in sharks between the two countries,” says Bürgener. “For example, we found wide discrepancies in the import and export data; we simply don’t know if the current fishing levels are sustainable.”

“Too little is recorded about the level of trade in sharks” Markus Bürgener, TRAFFIC

In 2001, South African exports of shark products to Australia totalled 37 tonnes; the combined Australian import figure was almost 148 tonnes, a discrepancy of more than 100 tonnes. 

Demersal sharks are mainly caught as by-catch in South Africa. Processed fillets are exported to Australia to meet the high consumer demand in the fish-and-chip trade. The trade is concentrated on five species—Smooth-hound, Tope, Copper, Dusky and White-spotted Smooth-hound Sharks—the last named is endemic to waters off Namibia and South Africa. Currently there are no catch limits on any of these species in South African waters. 

“Another problem is that Customs officers aren’t experts in identifying the species being traded, so this information simply isn’t recorded,” says Da Silva. 

“This is compounded because a lot of the processing takes place at sea, and it’s even harder to identify processed shark fillets—but it’s vital to know this for monitoring the trade in individual species.” 

Da Silva has developed a shark identification toolkit which the report recommends is distributed to all relevant compliance officials where demersal sharks are exploited.

Other report recommendations include a call for research into demersal shark stocks in South African waters, closer monitoring of the processing and export of demersal sharks, and investigation into the wide discrepancies between import and export data on sharks between the two countries. 

In Australia TRAFFIC has written to the Government, calling on it to improve its recording of imported seafoods and apply a sustainability test on imports.

“We want countries worldwide to record the trade in shark products properly" Glenn Sant, TRAFFIC

“Australia prides itself on management of the sustainability of shark catches within Australian waters, but limited consideration is given to recording the volume and sustainability of imported seafood products,” said Glenn Sant, Global Marine Programme Leader from TRAFFIC, based in Australia. 

“We want countries worldwide to record the trade in shark products properly and apply the equivalent tests of sustainability on imported products that apply to fishers within their own waters.”

The full report, South Africa’s demersal shark meat harvest, by Charlene Da Silva and Marcus Bürgener is published in the latest issue of the TRAFFIC Bulletin, the only scientific journal dedicated to the international wildlife trade. 

Other articles in this issue of the TRAFFIC Bulletin are papers on Chinese-language internet trade in wildlife, and an assessment of wildlife trade across the Myanmar-China border.