A worker cuts shark fins in Banyuwangi, Indonesia, May 25, 2014. Getty Images

A three-month investigation into the illegal shark fin trade uncovered massive shipments of the fins to Hong Kong. Sea Shepherd Global, an ocean conservation organization, documented huge shipment containers arriving by sea, each containing tens to hundreds of thousands of fins.

Hunting for shark fins is an especially gruesome practice. Fins are cut off the animal before it is thrown back into the ocean alive, leaving it to bleed or drown to death. And despite a worldwide ban on the transportation of fins, demand for shark fin soup in many Asian nations has kept the practice going.

“It’s so sad what the team at Sea Shepherd has managed to discover. Thousands and thousands of sharks slaughtered just for their fins to be turned into bowls of soup,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, in a press release Monday. “For these people who have knowingly participated, they need to hang their heads in shame.”

The shipments uncovered by Sea Shepherd Global were deliberately mislabeled with designations like “dried seafood” or “dried marine products” to avoid being detected by carriers.

“The months leading up to the Chinese New Year are always the busiest months for the shark fin traders as they seek to fulfill the demand of the mainland Chinese market during the festive holiday,” said Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd Global’s director for Southeast Asia.

Demand for fins has led to a dramatic drop in a number of shark populations. The fins from up to 73 million sharks end up in the global trade each year,​ according to Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation and advocacy organization. The fins themselves are worth far more than the shark, which is why the creatures are left to die in the ocean. Some fins can sell for as much as $500 per pound, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Prohibitions in recent years have aimed to eliminate the market for shark fins though Sea Shepherd’s evidence shows it still continues in earnest. Since 1994, 22 countries around the world have imposed regulations on shark finning.

A worker cuts shark fins in Banyuwangi, Indonesia, May 25, 2014. Getty Images