Study finds major brands selling cat food that contain protected sharks

by Elizabeth Claire AlbertsMongaBayCreative Commons

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

(MongaBay) – Shark meat from vulnerable species is being processed into cat food for major brands, according to a new study.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore used DNA barcoding technology to analyze 144 samples from 45 cat food products that were produced 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 isn’t protected under CITES, the international convention on the wildlife trade, but that research suggests is overexploited. The other species discovered in the products were silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), both of which are listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, the global conservation authority. Silky sharks are also protected under 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 like “ocean fish,” “white fish” and “white bait,” the researchers said.

Leading brands such as Fancy Feast, Whiskas, and Sheba were among those found to contain shark meat, including CITES-protected silky sharks.

Study finds major brands selling cat food that contain protected sharks
Blue shark off southern California. Image by Mark Conlin/NMFS via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

“It is likely that many pet owners who are broadly interested in conservation, or more specifically in the protection of sharks, are unaware that they may be inadvertently feeding endangered species of sharks to their pets,” the authors write.

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

“It is a global issue and this is made 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 Hong Kong-based advocacy NGO OceansAsia, said he and others in the conservation community have been aware of this issue for many years now, but that the issue hasn’t been receiving the attention it deserves.

“Any report is great to get out there,” Stokes told Mongbay in a phone interview. “It just shows the extent that sharks are being used, whether it’s for cosmetics or pills for arthritis or leather or any use of sharks that contributes to the slaughter of sharks globally.”

While it’s difficult to ascertain the scale of this issue, Stokes said he thinks it’s a common practice for shark meat to be used in cat food.

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

Study finds major brands selling cat food that contain protected sharks
Shortfin 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 may be a widespread practice, but Stokes said that trading sharks protected under CITES would be illegal since special permits are required to do this.

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

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

The researchers argue that pet food products need to be properly labeled to show if they contain shark meat. Not only would this help avoid the 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 labeling, more accountability,” Wainwright said, “throughout the entire seafood supply chain.”

Citations:

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

Da Silva, T. E., Lessa, R., & Santana, F. M. (2021). Current knowledge on 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, B. J. (2022). DNA barcoding identifies endangered sharks in pet food sold in Singapore. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.836941

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

​​Pacoureau, N., Rigby, C. L., Kyne, P. M., Sherley, R. B., Winker, H., Carlson, J. K., … Dulvy, N. K. (2021). Half a century of global decline in 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 caught on its mouth. Image by Joi Ito / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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by Elizabeth Claire AlbertsMongaBayCreative Commons

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