Sunday, April 5, 2015

Shark Fin Soup: The Demise of Sharks and Destruction of Oceans

Shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy that dates back to China’s Ming Dynasty as remains a symbol of wealth, pride, and prestige even today day. Commonly used as a wedding dish, a bowl of shark fin soup can sell for upwards of $100 a bowl. Dishes containing shark fin are also sold in many restaurants and hotels, and one “catty,” 21 ounces of shark fin, can sell in markets for $260. With such outrageous prices, people might think the impact of shark fin consumption is minimal, reserved for the small population of the wealthy and privileged. However, with China’s economic boom, people are making more money than ever, creating a middle class that loves to indulge in this upper-class delight to show that they can make it in the economic jungle too. The funny is that shark fin doesn’t even have a flavor. The cartilage is just a chewy thing to stick in a soup and call a delicacy; a chewy thing that causes the deaths of 100 million sharks per year and just might cause the collapse of marine ecosystems worldwide.

Sharks are apex predators essential for keeping other species populations from overwhelming the environment. Due to the extreme overfishing for fins, between 6.4% and 7.9% of shark populations are killed each year, exceeding the 4.9% cut off that ensure a stable population. These devastating statistics have been around for a while, and that is why a team of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science investigated shark populations for 10 years in reef systems of the north-west coast of Australia, an area frequently visited by shark finners. They found that the constant removal of sharks reduced the population enough to send the whole system into disarray. Sharks feed heavily on snappers in this area, which feed on herbivorous fish, which eat algae that grow on coral, keeping the reef healthy. When there are not enough sharks, the snapper population skyrockets. This decimates the herbivorous fish populations, meaning that nothing is there to remove the algae from the reef. Algae grow after damaging events like cyclones or bleaching, and for the reef to grow back, the algae need to be removed. When there are no fish to graze on the algae, the reef can’t bounce back, a real concern in a world where climate change will cause more cyclones and bleaching than ever. This applies to reefs around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, a famous area that is one-third protective green zone. Without the sharks, the whole system goes haywire. Doesn’t seem worth it for a few bites of gelatinous chunks, and I haven’t even mentioned the brutal way the fins are harvested yet.

It would be nice to think that finners have enough respect to at least use the entire animal, but the sad fact is that sharks are captured, their fins are sliced off, and they are dumped, alive, back into the ocean to bleed to death, starve, or be eaten by predators. 

Photo by Tre’ Packard of

The boats used for finning are not that large, and it is more valuable to only keep the fins, conserving space by casting aside the rest of the animal. This video from the Philippines shows the brutal fate these creatures have to endure; the shark washed up on the shore, still alive but with fins removed, destined for a defenseless and agonizing death. At least this shark served as a martyr, bringing the issue of finning to public attention and encouraging a change.

In 2014, the Convention on international Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) met in Thailand to discuss the treatment of sharks and rays. The unregulated trade of sharks has been fought since the 90’s, and this meeting finally got enough votes to create a ban. Although it doesn’t protect all shark species, porbeagles, oceanic whitetips, and 3 species of hammerhead were raised to Appendix II of the CITES code, meaning permits and certificates are needed for trade.  There are challenges to enforcing the ban such as determining sustainability levels, verifying permits, and identifying which species are in markets, but CITES is determined to keep this essential achievement in place. Due to awareness campaigns, the sales of shark fins have already decreased by 70%, and the Hilton Worldwide hotel chain stopped serving shark fin at its 96 properties in Asia and the Pacific. Unfortunately, some countries entered reservations to CITES regulations. Denmark (for Greenland), Canada, Guyana, Japan, Iceland, and Yemen have refused to abide by the ban and will continue to hunt the protected species. On the bright side, China, the main consumer of shark fin agreed to follow the protocol, which means things could be looking up for sharks and the oceans.  Hopefully the other countries will come around in the near future. After all, who could resist this goofy little face?

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