Sunrise is still a good hour away when the first batch of limp, lifeless sharks are winched ashore and dumped on to the portside at Kesennuma.
As daylight throws its first shadows on to the loading bay, fishery workers begin gutting the sharks before removing their fins with razor-sharp knives. It is a messy, blood-spattered business, and a study in industrial efficiency.
The fins are hurled into plastic buckets, and what’s left of the animals is scooped up by a forklift and loaded on to a truck. In contrast, the marlin, swordfish and bluefin tuna that share the port’s 1,000 metre-long bay are afforded almost reverential treatment.
Kesennuma, a fishing town on Japan’s north-east Pacific coast, does a lucrative business in the staples of Japanese cuisine: tuna, flounder, octopus, crab, bonito, Pacific saury, seaweed and squid.
But the trade in shark fins is its commercial lifeblood. The port, 250 miles north of Tokyo, accounts for 90% of Japan’s shark fin trade and the promise of eating the country’s best shark fin soup draws busloads of tourists every day in summer.
In 2009, Kesennuma landed almost 14,000 tonnes of shark, worth just over ¥2.4bn (£17.9m): a decent-sized tailfin can fetch as much as ¥10,000.
The minimal threat sharks pose to humans is the overriding theme of the town’s shark museum, while stalls at the port’s market sell everything the animal has to give: dumplings, jerky, shark-skin bags and accessories, and salmon-shark hearts – a local speciality eaten raw.
Few people outside Japan are aware of Kesennuma’s contribution to the global trade in shark fins. And many among the town’s 2,000 fishery workers would rather keep it that way as the Guardian discovered during a recent visit. We were asked to leave the port and film from a gantry reserved for tourists, while local officials turned down requests for comment. Our guide suggested, only half-jokingly, that we had been sent by Greenpeace.
Workers, contending with near-freezing temperatures and noisy, hungry seabirds circling above, moved quickly along the lines of sharks removing their fins. Pools of blood were hosed away as quickly as they formed.
Most of the shark fins handled at Kesennuma are taken to a nearby drying area – whose location is a closely guarded secret – and sold to upmarket restaurants in Tokyo and other big cities. A much smaller quantity is exported to Hong Kong and China, where the newly affluent have acquired a taste for Kesennuma shark fin.
The fishery workers go to extraordinary lengths to pursue their prey. The biggest ships among the town’s 130-strong fleet spend up to 50 days at sea, casting baited lines several miles in length along a stretch of ocean between Japan and Hawaii.
But growing demand for shark fins, coupled with modern fishing methods, has caused a rapid decline in shark populations around the world, according to conservation groups. Many of the top catcher nations under-report their catches, in violation of international regulations.
In a report released to coincide with a meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization last month, the Washington-based Pew Environment Group said at least 73 million sharks were killed every year, primarily for their fins.
“Sharks play a critical role in the ocean environment,” said Pew’s global shark conservation manager, Jill Hepp. “Where shark populations are healthy, marine life thrives. But where they have been overfished, ecosystems fall out of balance.
“Shark-catching countries must stand by their commitments and act now to conserve and protect these animals.”