Does he look worried? (Photo: Barry Peters/CC BY 2.0

Fish markets are full of fascinating sights, but as one unlucky (and rightfully outraged) observer discovered in south China’s Hainan Province, they can also hold some nasty surprises, like piles of protected sharks being sold for food.

As reported in National Geographic, photos appeared last week on Chinese social media of the scene at a fish market in Sanya. They appeared to show as many as 100 scalloped hammerhead sharks piled up and laid out for sale. These hammerheads can be found in oceans across the world, including the South China Sea, where the sharks are sought after for their meat and fins, which is used in the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup. The market was selling the sharks for a little over two dollars a pound.

For their part, the fishermen selling the sharks claimed that they were not aware that the animals were protected. They said that the sharks end up in their nets as an unwanted byproduct when fishing for other catches, and they were just trying to unload their unwanted gains. This may actually hold some water, as the scalloped hammerhead is not listed as endangered in China, but was classified as such in an international trade agreement regarding wildlife in 2013. 

Whether or not this unfortunate shark debacle is the result of ignorance or greed, the hammerheads (over 1,300 pounds worth of the animals) were taken off the market. The director of the fish market has also vowed to try to increase awareness of which species are protected. But poaching in the South China Sea continues to be an issue, affecting not just the sharks, but turtles and coral as well. In China the number of high-speed fishing boats outnumbers the amount of law enforcement vessels 300-to-1, meaning that ending the sale of protected sharks is probably going to take a lot more than awareness.