Gary Stokes doesn't have to look very far to find shark fins in his neighborhood.

Shark fins being dried on the street in Hong KongGary Stokes

Stokes, the Southeast Asia director at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has lived in Hong Kong for 26 years, and he's seen more shark fins β€” that is, fins cut off from the bodies of live sharks β€” than he's ever wanted to. Once a shark has been de-finned, the shark is thrown back in the water to die a slow, painful death.

A man drying shark fins in Hong KongGary Stokes

"In the last three weeks alone I've seen three 45-foot containers full of shark fins," Stokes told The Dodo. "One from Indonesia; the other two were both from the United Arab Emirates. When we look at 45-foot containers, we're talking millions of sharks."

A shark fin warehouse in Hong KongGary Stokes

Unfortunately for sharks, there's an insatiable demand for shark fins in Hong Kong and mainland China. Why? The answer lies in the murky broth of a specialty dish β€” shark fin soup. Known as the food of emperors, people like to serve shark fin soup at weddings and other special occasions to signify their prosperity and wealth. A single bowl of fin soup can cost $100 or more.

But wild animals pay an a hefty price for shark fin soup. It's estimated that 73 million sharks are killed each year for shark fin soup. Scientists also claim that sharks are being killed 30 times faster than they can reproduce.

Tresher sharkGary Stokes

What's more, the practice of shark finning is incredibly cruel. It's fairly common for fishermen to cut the fins off sharks, then to throw their bodies back into the ocean. Without their fins, sharks aren't able to move or breathe.

A fisherman cutting the fins off a shark in Sri LankaGary Stokes

"After being tossed back into the water, the sharks sink further and further; there's no survival or escape," Joanna Grossman, federal policy advisor for the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo. "The animals eventually bleed out and succumb to their injuries, or die from starvation, suffocation, or predation. It's difficult to say exactly how long a shark will remain alive after being finned. For some animals, a slow and painful death awaits while struggling to breathe at the bottom of the ocean; others might be attacked and eaten fairly quickly after being tossed overboard."

China is the biggest importer of shark fins, Stokes explained, and the majority of shark fins enter China through Hong Kong. "Hong Kong is the hub," Stokes said. "It's ground zero for shark fin."

Shark fins near the harbor in Hong KongGary Stokes

When the shark fins arrive in Hong Kong, they're sorted in large warehouses, or laid out to dry on rooftops or streets.

Shark fins drying on a roof in Hong KongGary Stokes

One of the largest collections of shark fins that Stokes has ever encountered was on a high-rise rooftop, where over 100,000 shark fins were being dried in the sun. He chartered a helicopter to take aerial photos of the fins, then entered the building and ran up to the roof.

Shark fins drying on a roof in Hong KongGary Stokes

"It was ridiculous," Stokes said. "You just get numb."

Shark fins drying on a roof in Hong KongGary Stokes

Yet Stokes is quick to point out that China is only part of the problem. "Everybody blames Asia when it's actually a global problem," he said. "If a country has an ocean, it will most likely be contributing to the shark fin trade."

Shark fins drying on a roof in Hong KongGary Stokes

That includes the United States. While the act of shark finning is illegal in the United States, it is still legal in 39 states to trade shark fin products.

"The problem is that once a fin is detached from a body, it is very hard to tell whether it came from a shark caught in a managed fishery or as a result of shark finning," Amy Vorphal, communications manager for Oceana, told The Dodo. "The U.S. still imports shark fins from places that allow shark finning (China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia), so although shark finning is illegal, we are still indirectly supporting it by allowing the import of these products."

Shark fins for sale in a store in Hong KongGary Stokes

Sharks are also not getting enough protection from international law-making bodies like the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). While 12 shark species are currently protected under Appendix 2 of CITES, that only regulates trade, and doesn't actually make it illegal to kill them.

A Hong Kong store selling shark fins and other shark productsGary Stokes

In fact, some of the most common sharks killed for their fins include vulnerable and endangered species, like scalloped hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks.

Despite the massive challenges sharks face, Stokes remains hopeful for the future. "Things are changing, especially in the younger generations," Stokes said. "The request for shark fin soup at weddings is going down."

A shark swimming in HawaiiGary Stokes

Still, sharks need a lot more protection than they currently have.

If you'd like to help sharks, you can sign this petition or make a donation to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.