Restaurants fuelling demand for shark meat in India, finds study

  • A survey of seafood restaurants in 10 coastal states of India found that they form an important part of domestic supply chains for shark meat.
  • Demand for shark meat, which is traditionally consumed by coastal communities, is starting to come from a more diverse clientele, including tourists.
  • Shark meat has become a symbol of authenticity among restaurants serving local cuisines.

Certain species of elasmobranch, such as sharks, are among the most overfished species in the Indian seas. A new survey documenting their consumption in India suggests one group of stakeholders, in particular, could influence their consumption patterns in a big way: restaurants.

In a study, researchers who are a part of InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative, conducted a survey among seafood eateries in 10 coastal states in the country and found that they “form an important component in domestic supply chains,” for shark meat. Shark meat is a part of local diets in several coastal states and is traditionally favoured by low-income groups for its low price and perceived health benefits. But the survey finds that demand for shark meat is now coming from a more diverse clientele, including tourists.

“We wanted to see how people from the middle and upper classes were able to access shark meat, which was previously confined to this narrow coastal belt,” said Divya Karnad, Assistant Professor of environmental studies at Ashoka University and lead author of the study. “We cannot suddenly come in and tell fishing communities, who are eating what they catch, what to do, especially without offering a viable alternative. But if there are other customers who are eating at more upmarket restaurants and have the potential to make other choices with their money, but opt to eat shark meat instead, it can be a problem.”

Worldwide, shark and ray populations have declined by more than 70% over the last 50 years. In India, despite a decline in shark fin trade, demand for meat trade and consumption remains high. India is home to around 170 species of sharks, but 11% of shark and ray species are at risk of extinction, a recent assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found.

A majority of sharks for consumption are caught as bycatch, where small sharks or juveniles of larger species are preferred. Photo by nathalie_r/Wikimedia Commons.

Most shark meat consumption happens at a household level. Offering it at restaurants with an online presence opens up new frontiers of shark consumption that could challenge conservation efforts. The survey found that based on their sales, these restaurants had the potential to sell 251.6 tonnes of shark meat, or 83,866 sharks weighing 3 kg each – equivalent to 9.8% of small sharks in India’s total annual elasmobranch landings.

Shark on the menu

A majority of sharks for consumption are caught as bycatch, where the fishers prefer small sharks or juveniles of larger species. Except for the species mentioned in the Wildlife Protection Act, local consumption of shark meat is not illegal and has a long history in coastal regions. However, the lack of data on shark species being sold in the market makes it difficult to discern the legality of shark meat being consumed, Karnad said.

The researchers trawled through the menus of 2649 seafood restaurants with an online presence in 10 coastal states and found that Goa and Tamil Nadu had the highest proportion of the 292 restaurants serving elasmobranch meat – 35.8% and 34.6%, respectively. Maharashtra came third, accounting for 4.6% of restaurants that had shark meat on the menu.

Restaurants featured shark meat on their menus to signal authenticity, the researchers found, but could not distinguish between different species, referring to most as “baby shark.” In Goa, where shark meat was most abundantly available in restaurants, locals and foreign tourists were the biggest groups to make up demand. Among foreign tourists, restaurateurs believed they ordered shark meat for its distinct taste, because it was easy to eat, or was a part of their diet at home but not easily available.

Studies on the cause for this shift in consumption patterns don’t yet exist, but Karnad said it could be because people are increasingly seeking out rare ingredients. “I think it’s part of this larger shift that we’ve seen in the last maybe 10 or 15 years, where people have started to look for indigenous ingredients that are unusual or exotic. The sudden popularity of millets, for example,” she said. Shark meat is believed to improve milk production in lactating mothers and have other health benefits, she added.

Patterns of consumption could also be influenced by the price of seafood, Karnad said. The price of shark meat has steadily increased, which has made it comparatively less attainable by low-income groups who are starting to show a preference for ray meat instead.

Restaurants offering shark meat did so to signal their authenticity, the survey found. Photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons.

Zoya Tyabji, a shark researcher at Dalhousie University in Canada, said the findings of the study were “spot on” when it comes to addressing urban patterns of consumption. “The findings are really important when it comes to where interventions can be made to address this emerging market. But consumption also happens among a different strata, who are purchasing the meat directly from the market because it’s a cheap source of protein. It’s important to understand what the drivers of that are.”

Not all experts agree, however, that shark consumption, particularly in restaurants, is a threat to conservation efforts. Shoba Joe Kizhakudan, principal scientist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, told Mongabay India that their own studies on hotel and restaurant-based consumption with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations “clearly indicate poor consumer loyalty to sharks, and they are easily replaceable. Therefore, shark consumption in India does not pose a threat to shark populations,” she said. “On the other hand, it provides a livelihood avenue through utilisation of sharks landed as by-catch.” The FAO study is due to be released later this year.

Shark consumption is a “contributory factor to shark bycatch being retained but not a threat to conservation per se,” said Kizhakudan, adding that threats to shark conservation include a lack of species-specific conservation policies and difficulty in implementation of policies due to India’s complex and dynamic fisheries, among other reasons.

Managing shark consumption

Notably, most restaurants felt removing shark meat from their menus wouldn’t significantly affect profits and one-third were open to replacing shark meat with alternatives, according to the survey. Focus group discussions with restaurant owners revealed they were only “mildly interested” in the ecological implications of serving shark meat. They showed far more concern when educated about high heavy metal levels in sharks, which could be harmful for their clients and undermined beliefs of the health benefits of eating shark meat.

Bringing in better monitoring mechanisms and regulating the market could help curb consumption of shark meat from growing. “An immediate measure to curb consumption is to create a programme for restaurants to voluntarily remove sharks from their menu,” says the paper, which adds “raising restaurant and consumer awareness about the health risks from eating sharks can produce voluntary behaviour changes, especially among these newly emerging consumer groups.”

Since most small sharks are caught as bycatch, the study says another intervention is ensuring fishermen have better access to discerning equipment, such as bycatch reduction devices, as well as “more stringent rules for licensing of fishing vessels and the introduction of economic incentives for fishers to exit unsustainable fisheries.”

According to Kizhakudan, “The ideal approach would be to educate the public about endangered and threatened species so as to discourage their fishery and trade (strict implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act measures). Trade, including local consumption of other sharks need not be discouraged as long as there is transparency of data and a continuous scientific monitoring of shark populations in place.”

Read more: Eating shark meat might be normal in India but it could have an adverse impact


Banner image: Spadenose shark sold at Sassoon Dock fish market in Mumbai. Photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons.

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