On my sixteenth birthday I swam with a hammerhead shark. It was the closest experience I’ve had to anything resembling god. That same year over 70 million sharks were killed commercially, the majority harvested for their fins to make shark fin soup. It is likely that if present trends continue, many species of shark will go extinct, an event which would signal an environmental tragedy, a moral travesty, and the sad affirmation that I will never see god again.
What I intend to discuss is the fishing technique called finning and the cultural tradition, shark fin soup, that it feeds. Shark fin soup is a dish that was reportedly first served to a Chinese emperor in the 14th century. It was traditionally served as a symbol of wealth and power by the host, and has since become a popular dish at weddings. As the Chinese middle class has rapidly grown, so too has the consumption of shark fin soup. It has increased so much that now the entire market and the ocean’s ecosystems are getting ready to collapse under the new market strain.
What do I mean when I say collapse? I mean that many shark species have declined past the point of replenishment and risk being removed entirely from the world’s oceans. A study titled Collapse and Conservation of Shark Species in the Northwest Atlantic researched and published a few shocking numbers in regards to the decline of certain shark species. It found population declines of 79% in great white sharks, 80% in thresher sharks, 60% in blue sharks, and, the real doozy, 89% in hammerhead sharks. These are percent declines of the global population for these species. 89% of hammerheads are gone. Extinguished. Can these populations be replenished? Not likely. Another study, completed for Marine Policy, found that globally, 6.4% to 7.9% of sharks are killed annually. And the saddest part? These shark species have a replenishment rate of only 4.9% per year. The quick and dirty of this is that we are killing far more sharks then the ocean can handle and soon there will not be any left.
As I write this I realize that many of you might be slightly relieved by these numbers. Afterall, aren’t sharks the bloodthirsty creatures we must live in terror of at the beach? People often forget that these animals that play the bad guys in countless Hollywood movies and are in many people’s top ten fears also play a key role in one of the largest ecosystems on the planet. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. What happens when an apex predator disappears? Unchecked growth on the other levels of the food chain, resulting in collapse of the lowest levels and when that happens the whole system implodes. This is bad. This ecosystem provides our world with one-third of its food and also happens to produce most of the oxygen we enjoy breathing. The only good thing that could result from sharks disappearing is that we would never have to see a Long John Silver’s commercial again.
I also realize as I write this that people hearing about the next environmental catastrophe probably will just tune out and fall asleep on the couch. So that’s why I’m going to discuss in detail the process by which innocent animals are butchered! Yay! What happens first is the sharks are caught and brought onto the boat. Then, they are bludgeoned so that they are unable to move. Next, the oh-so-valuable fins are sliced off of their bodies. Finally, they are tossed back into the ocean alive. If that doesn’t sound bad then please tie your arms and legs together and jump into a lake and let me know how it works out. This practice is a cruel and unusual way to harvest the fins from these animals, and it’s also a massive waste of a resource. Like the ivory trade, only a small portion of the harvested animal is used while the rest is thrown away. To get some more perspective on this horrific practice, here are a few videos that will make things a little clearer for you. This is one of the most disgusting fishing practices in the world, and what’s worse is that it is being done with such frequency that it’s already removed, as I mentioned before, 89% of certain shark species. This is an appeal to your sense of morality: please don’t sit still and allow practices like this to continue.
Now, let’s forget about the morality argument or the “if you don’t do this we’re all going to die” argument, and talk about something everyone loves: money. The fun fact about shark finning is that it has been proven to make zero economic sense. Sure, the value of a dead shark’s fins is around $108 USD, but the value of a living shark is much higher. A study done by the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences found that one shark brings in $179,000 annually and $1.9 million over its lifetime through the attraction of tourism. That’s a massive number stemming from only one shark. For this reason alone we should seriously reconsider our approach to the entire shark meat trade.
Want to know something cool? The paradigm is already shifting. People are becoming aware of the ills of shark finning. Shark fin consumption in China has declined significantly in past years. Public opinion towards shark fin soup is beginning to change thanks to efforts by nonprofit groups such as Shark Truth, which has worked a lot in Hong Kong, a major fin trading city, to spread awareness of shark finning to youth and to provide alternatives for wedding ceremonies and dinners. Additionally, the Chinese government banned the serving of shark fin soup at state banquets, a traditionally common venue for the dish. What’s more, the world famous basketball player, Yao Ming, has come out against shark fin soup and the practice of shark finning. It is thanks to measures and actions from concerned people and governments that spell hope for our world’s sharks, but unfortunately it hasn’t been enough so far.
This is where you come in. There are a couple things you can do to help end the practice of shark finning. Living here in Shanghai you might just encounter shark fin soup in some of the restaurants you visit. If you do, walk out. Leave. Don’t support a business that is directly involved with the trade. Also, you can sign petitions like the CITES initiative which limits the international trade of endangered species of sharks and rays. Raise awareness when you can. Do what you can. And most importantly, remember: sharks are friends, not food. Please help to save your underwater buddies.
P.S. Sharks have been here for 450 million years while our ancestors only showed up about six million years ago. In other words they have been calling dibsies on this planet for over 400 million years. Respect the dibs. Don’t eat shark fins.
Baum, J. K. “Collapse and Conservation of Shark Populations in the Northwest Atlantic.”
Science 299.5605 (2003): 389-92. Web.
Vianna GMS, Meekan MG, Pannell D, Marsh S, Meeuwig J (2010) “Wanted Dead or Alive? The
relative value of reef sharks as a fishery and an ecotourism asset in Palau.” Australian Institute of Marine Science and University of Western Australia, Perth.
Worm, Boris, Brendal Davis, Lisa Kettemer, Christine A. Ward-Paige, Demian Chapman, Michael R. Heithaus, Steven T. Kessel, and Samuel H. Gruber. “Global Catches, Exploitation Rates, and Rebuilding Options for Sharks.” Marine Policy. Elsevier, n.d. Web. Sept. 2015.
This article was written by John Rhoades. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons