Shark Finning: Cruel and Devastating to World’s Sharks
By Ken Franklin
Shark! The word strikes terror into the hearts of people all over the world, even if the closest most of them have ever gotten to one is the movie “Jaws”. Though sharks suffer from an image problem, the fact is that they play an essential part in the earth’s marine environment, and are far more likely to include a diseased fish on their lunch menu than a human swimmer.
The same, sadly, cannot be said of the reverse. Humans are hunting sharks by the millions for just one part of their body: their four fins. Shark meat is not particularly nutritious or tasty, but shark-fin soup is a delicacy in China and other parts of Asia, served at weddings and other celebrations. It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, and many Chinese feel that it’s an affront not to offer shark-fin soup to their guests. The fins provide texture, not taste. To prepare the soup, fins are cooked a long time until they separate into needles of cartilage that look like clear noodles.
To gather fins for shark-fin soup, fishermen capture millions of blue, hammerhead, silky, mako, and thresher sharks every year. About half the sharks they haul in are “bycatch,” meaning the sharks are caught by fishermen who were seeking tuna, swordfish, or other species, but who keep the accidentally netted sharks for their fins. To save space on their fishing boats, the fishermen slice the still-living sharks’ fins off with a hot metal blade—a process called “finning”—and then toss the animals back in the sea. Sharks cannot swim without fins, so they are doomed to an agonizing death—if not by bleeding to death, then from starvation. Divers report finding gruesome shark graveyards at the bottom of the ocean, containing the carcasses of hundreds of finned sharks.
Sold at markets in Hong Kong and elsewhere, shark-fins can bring a price as high as $700 a kilogram (about $300 a pound). The soup costs as much as $100 a bowl. With money like that at stake, it’s easy to see why conservationists face an uphill battle in their effort to put an end to finning.
BlueVoice.org executive director Hardy Jones was recently on the island of Rangiroa, about 250 miles north of Tahiti, when two fishermen were spotted finning two female lemon sharks. The fishermen became enraged at a female biologist who observed the event. One grabbed her by the throat and menaced her with a knife.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conservatively estimates that 856,000 tons of shark and their cousins the rays and skates were caught in 2003, triple the amount from 50 years earlier. Estimates of the number of sharks killed each year vary from about 35 million to 100 million.
Sharks have remained virtually unchanged for over 40 million years and inhabit every ocean on the planet, but the killing is threatening some species with extinction. Researchers in Nova Scotia found an 89 percent drop in the North Atlantic population of hammerhead sharks. The Wildlife Alliance (formerly WildAid) says the shark population off North America has declined as much as 90 percent in recent years. The silky white tip shark has reportedly disappeared from the Caribbean.
Despite these grim statistics, there is hope. The United States and the European Union have banned shark-finning in their waters, and groups like the Wildlife Alliance, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna and BlueVoice.org are pressing for global action. On a local level, weeks of criticism from environmentalists around the world persuaded Hong Kong Disneyland to cancel plans to serve shark-fin soup at wedding banquets there. And NBA star Yao Ming held a press conference in Beijing to pledge never again to eat shark-fin soup. “Putting our ecosystem in great peril is certainly not a part of Chinese culture that I know,” he said. “How do you maintain this so-called tradition when one day there is no shark to be finned?”
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