Study finds major brands selling cat food containing protected sharks

  • Researchers used DNA barcoding to find that cat food sold in Singapore by at least 16 different brands contained endangered shark species, including silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) which are protected under Appendix II of CITES.
  • Top brands such as Fancy Feast, Whiskas and Sheba were among those that contained silky sharks and other species.
  • None of these cat food products were accurately labeled to show they contained sharks.
  • Global shark populations are in steep decline, mainly due to destructive fishing practices.

Shark meat from vulnerable species is turned into cat food for major brands, a new study has found.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore used DNA barcoding technology to analyze 144 samples of 45 cat food products made by 16 different brands in Thailand and sold in Singapore. They found that 31% of the samples contained shark meat.

The most common shark found in cat food was the blue shark (Prionace glauca), a species that is not protected by CITES, the international convention on wildlife trade, but which research shows is overexploited. The other species found in the products were silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and white reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), both listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, the world conservation authority. Silky sharks are also protected by CITES Appendix II, which regulates trade through a set of conditions.

However, none of the cat food products were accurately labeled as containing shark meat. Instead, they used generic terms such as “sea fish”, “white fish” and “white bait”, the researchers said.

Top brands such as Fancy Feast, Whiskas and Sheba were among those containing shark meat, including CITES-protected silky sharks.

Blue shark off southern California. Image by Mark Conlin/NMFS via WIkimedia Commons (Public Domain).

“It is likely that many pet owners with a general interest in conservation, or shark protection more specifically, are unaware that they may be inadvertently feeding endangered shark species to their pets. of companionship,” the authors write.

Co-author Ben Wainwright said this study confirms what other studies have found about pet foods containing shark meat. For example, a 2019 study found that pet food sold in the United States contained endangered shortfin mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), and that some cosmetics used parts of critically endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini), blue sharks and blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus)​​. However, the new study indicates that the problem extends beyond the United States.

“This is a global problem and it is even more likely given the global nature of shark fishing and the complexities associated with global supply chains,” Wainwright told Mongabay in an email.

Gary Stokes, founder of the Hong Kong-based advocacy NGO OceansAsia, said he and others in the conservation community have been aware of the issue for many years now, but the issue has not received the attention it deserves.

“Any report is great to release,” Stokes told Mongbay in a phone interview. “It just goes to show how much sharks are being used, whether it’s for cosmetics or arthritis pills or leather or any use of sharks that contributes to the slaughter of sharks around the world.”

While it’s hard to pinpoint the extent of this problem, Stokes said he believes it’s common practice to use shark meat in cat food.

“In most places, shark meat is just cheap, low-grade meat that people don’t really use, so it’s ground up and made into fertilizer, made into pet food. “said Stokes, adding that the aversion to shark meat for human consumption is likely related to the high levels of urea in the meat which give it an unpleasant taste and odor.

Mako shark in the North Atlantic at Condor Bank, Azores. Image by Patrick Doll via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Processing sharks into pet food can be a widespread practice, but Stokes said trade in CITES-protected sharks would be illegal because special permits are needed to do so.

“If they are protected species, you cannot take [the products] across international borders without declaration,” he said. “But of course they’re technically smuggled because they’re hidden inside the ingredients…of pet food.”

Global shark populations are under extreme pressure due to overfishing. A study found that shark and ray populations have declined by more than 70% over the past 50 years. Another study found that sharks were “functionally extinct” from many coral reef habitats, especially those near human settlements that were poorly governed and whose fishing was unregulated.

The researchers argue that pet foods should be properly labeled to indicate whether they contain shark meat. Not only would this help avoid exploitation of vulnerable sharks, but it would “allow pet owners to have greater control over what they feed their pets,” they conclude.

“[We need] better labelling, more accountability,” Wainwright said, “along the seafood supply chain.”

Quotes:

Cardenosa, D. (2019). Genetic identification of endangered shark species in pet food and beauty products. Conservation Genetics, 20(6), 1383-1387. doi:10.1007/s10592-019-01221-0

Da Silva, TE, Lessa, R., & Santana, FM (2021). Current knowledge on the biology, fishing and conservation of the blue shark (Prionace glauca). Neotropical Biology and Conservation, 16(1), 71-88. doi:10.3897/neotropical.16.e58691

French, I., & Wainwright, BJ (2022). DNA barcoding identifies endangered sharks in animal feed sold in Singapore. Frontiers of Marine Science, 9. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.836941

MacNeil, MA, Chapman, D., Heupel, M., Simpfendorfer, CA, Heithaus, M., Meekan, M., … Cinner, JE (2020). Global status and conservation potential of reef sharks. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2519-y

Pacoureau, N., Rigby, CL, Kyne, PM, Sherley, RB, Winker, H., Carlson, JK, … Dulvy, NK (2021). Half a century of global decline of oceanic sharks and rays. Nature, 589(7843), 567-571. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-03173-9

Banner image caption: A silky shark with a hook hanging from its mouth. Image by Joi Ito/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is an editor for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECalberts.

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Business, DNA, Marine, Marine Animals, Marine Biodiversity, Marine Conservation, Marine Crisis, Marine Ecosystems, Pets, Science, Sharks, Sharks And Rays, Species, Technology

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