Sharks have turned up as “mystery meat” in Brazil, in some pet food in the U.S., and at some fish-and-chip shops in the U.K. and Australia.
Cananéia, Brazil“For dinner this week I made shark stroganoff,” Ana Alinda says one afternoon as we sit outside her cement home, watching a rainstorm flood her yard in this southern Brazilian fishing town. It’s April, the start of fall, but today it’s steamy and humid, our skin sticking to our chairs.

Alinda, 63, closes her eyes for a moment and presses her lips together as if she’s still savoring the meal. “It was delicious,” she says. The key ingredient, she explains, is hammerhead shark.
Shark has a distinct ammonia flavor, unlike any other fish, she says. “I like the taste,” and shark’s cartilaginous, so it’s easy to prepare, she adds. “You don’t have to worry about the bones.”
It’s also cheap protein, sold for $2 per pound, though Alinda gets her fish for free as part of her job sorting seafood.
She glances at a man riding his bicycle nearby, holding his umbrella aloft and pedaling in the white rain boots common among fishers. Most fishers don’t aim to catch shark, she says, but they pull in whatever’s caught.
“Fishing nets don’t have a sign saying ‘no sharks allowed,’” she says, reflecting the views of many people in this community. The laws governing shark catch in Brazil are complex, hinging on factors including if the shark species was designated as endangered, where the fishing took place, and what equipment was used to capture the animal. Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, IBAMA, also told National Geographic that it matters if the shark was targeted or caught unintentionally.
Alinda grew up eating shark meat, and now four of her sons work as industrial fishers, sometimes pulling in shark themselves. The job’s dangerous: Her eldest son has a scar from a shark bite on his hand, Alinda says. And her grandson died on the job six years ago, drowned when he was only 16. “People should thank God for every fish they get,” she says.
She’s not alone in her taste for shark. Brazil’s long been the world’s top consumer of shark meat. On average, its official data suggests it imports around 17,000 tons of shark annually, chiefly from Taiwan, Portugal, Uruguay, China, and Spain. The country also catches about 5,000 tons of blue shark on top of an unknown volume of coastal shark species—including various hammerhead species, which are nationally  protected and illegal to catch in Brazil.
There’s scant monitoring of the country’s 5,000 miles of coastline, and in port areas where data is collected, fishers are often expected to self-report what they’ve caught.
“Even in places where we have monitoring data it’s probably underreported as fishers are afraid of reporting sharks,” says Martin Dias, Brazil science director for Oceana, a global conservation group. The country’s shark catches “should be considered highly uncertain and likely to be underestimated by an unknown magnitude,” the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization told National Geographic in a statement. 
The Brazilian government’s environmental enforcement agency, IBAMA, told National Geographic in a statement that it relies on individuals who see illegal activity to report it through an online complaint or its hotline. When fishers with authorization to target certain fish species instead target shark, that’s illegal, it said. “There is no fishing authorization for shark as a targeted species,” IBAMA said, adding that unintentional shark bycatch, however, may still be used. 
In practical terms,” says shark researcher Patricia Charvet of the Federal University of Ceará, “huge quantities of shark are fished and landed using this approach. Any boat can bring in tons of shark if they call it bycatch and say that the target species for which they have the license was not found.”
The shark meat business is also growing around the world, hastened partly by reductions in other available seafoods due to overfishing and climate change. Fishers who targeted shark fins for high-value soup also once sliced off the fins and then threw the injured or dead animals back into the water.
But that’s changed: A growing number of finning prohibitions in recent decades have made slicing and dumping illegal in more than 90 percent of the world’s oceans.
Fishers now must keep the sharks aboard, which means they have meat to sell.
That cheap meat is showing up in everyday products. Shortfin mako was found in U.S. pet food, according to a 2019 study. Just a month after that analysis was submitted for publication, the shark was declared “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Spiny dogfish, another threatened shark species—officially termed “vulnerable” by the IUCN—was detected in almost 90 percent of the fried fish sampled at dozens of fish-and-chip shops in the United Kingdom. Shark’s been the “mystery meat” in some Australian fish-and-chip shops too. And in Brazil, shark’s served in some school lunches and restaurants—though it’s not always clearly labeled as such.
In fact, many Brazilians may not realize that they’re eating shark at all. Despite the substantial known catch and imports, “it’s not a widely preferred fish, so there are a lot of unanswered questions,” says Ana Paula Barbosa Martins, a Brazilian postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University studying the shark trade.
Consumers close to the fishing industry know how to recognize shark meat even if they can’t always identify the exact species. Yet when the meat is displayed in supermarkets as steaks or filets or offered on a restaurant menu, it’s often just labeled as cação, which many Brazilians think is “ocean fish” or “white fish,” Martins says.
More than half of the people who reported eating cação in a 2015 study in a large city in southern Brazil said they’d never eaten shark in their lives. The words used to describe specific shark species also differ regionally within the country, confusing matters further, says Jonathan Ready, a biologist at the Federal University of Pará.
The knowledge gap’s a problem: If you don’t know you’re eating shark, you can’t make informed choices about the health risks associated with consuming the apex predator, says Jones Santander-Neto, a shark researcher at Brazil’s Federal Institute of Education, Science, and Technology in Piúma. 
He says it’s “very uncommon” for Brazilians to know about heavy metals that bioaccumulate in large fish as the animal preys on smaller ones, or about any other potential contaminants that could put their health at risk.
Rachel Ann Hauser Davis, a biologist and researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), a branch of the Brazilian Ministry of Health, is one of the scientists who’s published research on the alarming levels of mercury and arsenic among sharks in several areas of Brazil. She says that despite the data there still aren’t any significant campaigns to inform the public about these issues—which can include increased cancer risk.
My reporting backed these observations. None of the dozen-plus shark consumers I spoke with across three Brazilian states had ever heard of heavy metals in shark, and they all said they had no health concerns about eating shark. Instead, most people told me that shark was the “ideal” fish to serve to infants and the elderly because it’s free of the small bones common in other fish.
In Brazil, shark’s prepared in soups or stews, or as a steak or a filet. But the country’s most famous dish, by far, is a Brazilian seafood stew called muquecaIt’s so iconic in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo that it’s posted on hotel ads 
Lately, shark researchers have been trying to fill in some of the gaps about shark consumption in Brazil and around the world, including quantifying the trade and the species involved. The U.S.-based Shark Conservation Fund is financing a $1.5 million global shark meat survey that includes both interviews with people in the shark meat supply chain and DNA analysis of shark meat species from docks and supermarkets. Martins is heading up the Brazilian arm of the work, with other efforts underway in India, Mexico, and Belize, among other locales.
The survey relies partly on people like Alinda, the shark consumer in southern Brazil, who provided the Martins team with some shark meat samples.
Aaron MacNeil, the global survey leader and an ecological statistician at Dalhousie, says he hopes that the research results, which are expected in 2024, will inform national and international policies on shark conservation. Knowing more about what sharks are eaten and where, he says, could help country leaders decide which require further protection.
Going into this project, however, the shark experts knew something many members of the public may not: The trade in shark meat is surprisingly much larger in volume—and value—than the better-known Asian shark fin trade, which claims as many as an estimated 73 million sharks a year.
But as Oceana detailed in a recent report, weak oversight that doesn’t require sharks to be identified at the species level and poor tracking of shark catches make it difficult to understand the burden the shark meat trade is placing on the animals. 
What’s more, illegal finning for export to Asia still remains a major concern in Brazil, with Brazilian authorities reporting in late June that they’d seized an enormous haul of illegally obtained shark fins. The fins, bound for Asia, came from more than 10,000 blue sharks and shortfin makos.
Many Brazilian fishers who bring sharks to shore try to process the animals as quickly as possible to make endangered species indistinguishable from those that are allowed, says Paulo Roberto Santos dos Santos, a fisheries data specialist for the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund and a shark researcher for the nonprofit Linha D’ Água Institute. The fin is the first thing to go, and then “local traders remove the skin to mislead the government that the species are legal,” he says.
Beyond shark meat, other shark products are also for sale in Brazil. At the famous waterfront marketplace Mercado Ver-o-Peso, in Belém, a man offered to sell me and a group of Brazilian shark researchers a bottle of liquified shark liver—a cure, we were told, for inflammation.
One of the scientists, João Bráullio de Luna Sales of the Federal University of Pará, bought a sample and sent the product to a lab in Norway for DNA testing.
“It definitely smells like shark,” he quipped after we went back to his lab and he removed the cap to take a whiff of the rank ammonia brew. (Shark blood and tissue generally has a high level of urea, which breaks down to ammonia.) The contents of the bottle remained unconfirmed at publication time.
Blue shark, a species with a long, cone-shaped snout that’s found worldwide, is the world’s top-consumed shark. In 2019, more than seven million were landed, and Brazil’s a leading importer of the animal, according to Oceana.
The species isn’t endangered. But to prevent its overexploitation, in November 2022, the global treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, CITES, granted the species and most other shark species new protections. It placed them under Appendix II of the treaty, which means countries can no longer export them unless they certify that it won’t hurt shark sustainability. Yet how to assess that question remains controversial.
“It’s certainly not easy,” says CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero. “There are no borders in the ocean,” so getting meaningful data to prove shark fisheries are non-detrimental “will require international effort to provide these documents,” she says.
Brazil rarely exports any of its shark meat due to its domestic demand, but under Brazilian laws, fishers who snag any protected species are supposed to throw them back, Santos notes.
“Most don’t,” he says, adding that even if fishers want to return sharks to the waters, they’re often dead by the time fishers haul them up.
Efforts to help inform Brazilians about what they’re eating have also run into difficulties.
Paraná, a Brazilian state located south of Cananéia, enacted legislation this year that requires sellers to label shark at stores. But Charvet, of the Federal University of Ceará showed me photos from her local grocery store, which had frozen cação for sale. Beneath the product was a price tag and a label that erroneously read “cod fish.”
Standing in the freezer room of an industrial fishing operation in Cananéia called Miami Pescados—kept at a frigid four degrees below zero Fahrenheit—I shiver and glance over at four workers who have ice on their eyelashes. They’re wearing face mufflers and winter coats. The rain and fish goo caking my shoes has already begun to harden.
Above me are pallets of frozen blue shark. Stacked high with their skin attached but their fins and heads removed, the fish resemble dark gray torpedoes. The company purchased the sharks without their fins, since those parts are immediately shipped to Asia, says Helgo Müller, the plant’s 52-year-old manager. These pallets hold some two tons of frozen blue shark, he explains. “If people want it frozen we follow the market, and if people want it fresh I sell it fresh,” he says.
Yet shark makes up less than 5 percent of their business overall, with only six to nine tons of the animal sold monthly, he says. Of the hundreds of seafood products they sell, he says, their biggest commodity is octopus—beloved in Brazil, including for sushi. Their biggest shark client, he says, is São Paulo state, and much of the company’s shark isn’t caught locally—it’s imported from China, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Spain.
Later that week, in Peruíbe, a town whose name means “river of sharks” in the Indigenous Tupi language, I meet a man who’s searching for mako to barbeque that day. He moves from one artisanal fish stall to the next; he doesn’t want the darker meat of the hammerhead that’s on offer, he says. “It tastes too much like ammonia—like urine,” he says. He doesn’t seem concerned, or possibly even aware, of the legal issues around fishers capturing one species versus another.
At lunch one day I have another encounter with mako. It’s the shark species listed only as cação at Pirão, a popular seafood restaurant in Vitoria, the capital city of Espírito Santo.
Accompanied by shark expert Jones Santander-Neto, I arrive at the eatery during its lunch rush on a weekday in April. After a handshake, Silvestre Tavares, the restaurant’s owner, allows us to visit the kitchen and watch his staff preparing customers’ orders of muqueca, the iconic Brazilian stew that often features cação. At his restaurant, he says, the shark that’s typically served is mako. The simplicity of the dish, I’d read and heard from numerous Brazilian fans, allows the flavor of the fish (or shark) to shine through.
I watch—and try to stay out of the way of hot pots and scalding dishes—as chef Sandra Helena Barbosa quickly pours oil, tomatoes, onion, lemon, salt, garlic, coriander, and a type of orange-red seed paste called annatto into a special clay pot that she leaves to bubble over high heat for about 15 minutes.
Shark had been cut into small chunks on a nearby countertop—mako, she said—but the order she’s preparing calls for grouper and shrimp, so she adds those instead.
As the soup bubbles and the odor mixes with that of all the other tasty seafood being prepared my stomach starts to grumble. I feel conflicted about wanting some.
Just outside the kitchen, under photographs of celebrities that have previously dined here, including actors, athletes, and television personalities, Tavares tells us that muqueca with grouper is the restaurant’s most popular item. The cação option, however, is only two-thirds the price.
People know that cação at the restaurant is shark, he says. “But they like it because it’s cheaper than the other dishes and because it has no bones so it’s easier to eat than other fish,” he says. He gets about 400 customers a day on weekdays and many more on weekends, he says.
Santander-Neto and I eventually order the grouper and shrimp muqueca. The bones in the dish are comforting: Santander-Neto assures me that their presence means we are not eating any shark. The fishy flavor resonates clearly through the simple, savory dish.
As it turns out, however, not all Tavares customers know what they’re getting when they order cação: The next day I chat with Luis Hernandez, a regular at the restaurant who orders muqueca with cação a couple times each month. His dark eyebrows shoot up when I tell him that cação is actually shark. “I always just thought it was fish,” he says. “I’d feel bad if it was an endangered shark.”
In late May—after I’d visited the restaurant and spoke with fish sellers and consumers—new Brazil-wide protections went into force that make it illegal to catch more species of shark—including the endangered shortfin mako that many Brazilians prefer.
The likely effects of this change remain murky. Paulo Roberto Santos dos Santos says he’s skeptical the change will truly help shark conservation, since he notes species like hammerhead are already illegal to catch and are still widely available. 
Moreover, if the restrictions are enforced, “mako sharks are fighters,” he says, and they will be so stressed and exhausted fighting the line or the net that they’ll die anyway after they’re caught. 
Martins, who’s heading the Brazilian meat survey, says she doesn’t oppose all shark fishing: Since people need to eat and not every species is endangered, some catch should remain. Yet prohibitions that are based on strong science, she adds, need to be part of the solution. 
She and Santos agree that partnering with fishers will be essential to helping sharks. Specific programs, Santos says, could include sewing gillnets together with smaller gaps so sharks wouldn’t get caught and teaching fishers how to properly release sharks caught as bycatch. 
Davis, the government scientist, has other ideas too. Prohibiting captures may help sharks, she says, but she also suggests educating fishers on using “friendlier” hooks and telling schoolkids about the meaning of cação so they can tell their parents and urge them not to buy it.
Conservation can take many different forms, she says, and informing more people about the health risks of eating shark is important, she adds. If more people knew the facts and stopped eating the meat, eventually, she hopes, it’d lose value and be less attractive to catch altogether.
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