Sharks? I hear they eat people.
I hear they’re vicious, blood-thirsty death machines bereft of qualms or conscience, living only to feed, sowing terror in the hearts of beach bunnies and surfer dudes everywhere.
Best get rid of ‘em.
Oh, and something else: you know those funny things that stick out from their bodies? Those cartilaginous ridges that help them to turn, accelerate, and maneuver in the water? The ones without which they wouldn’t be able to function? The ones with an off-putting chewy texture, virtually no flavor, and only the most dubious gastronomic appeal?
I hear they make a damn fine soup.
Because of nonsense like this, sharks have been in our cross-hairs for decades. Due to a combination of unjustified fears and an insatiable appetite for shark fins in east Asia, it’s been an absolute bloodbath. We kill tens of millions of sharks every year. A countless number of them die on tuna longlines, ending their lives as ignominious tick marks on a bycatch report that no one ever sees. Many are killed by fishermen and aquaculturists as a part of “predator control” programs. Some are taken by recreational anglers that simply want the thrill of the fight.
But most of them? Most of them die for their fins.
The global shark finning fleet is a vast network of hundreds of vessels that operates as countless independent cells, terrorizing sharks from the Red Sea to the Caribbean, from the icy coasts of Greenland to the Cape of Good Hope. Dozens of species are targeted solely for their fins, which can be exchanged for buckets of cash in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other centers of the trade. Shark finners catch the sharks on lines or in nets and haul them to the surface. Once the animals are immobilized, the finners dismember the sharks with machetes or similar implements. The hapless creatures are then either chopped into steaks or callously tossed overboard to bleed to death as they sink into the deeps.
Shark fins are coveted due to their alleged medicinal value. When purified and injected, shark cartilage has been linked to an antiangiogenic effect (blood vessels shrinking away from the injected area.) This is particularly interesting in the realm of tumors and cancer treatment. The link between such an effect and a bowl of boiled shark fins in broth, however, is theoretical at best.
Sadly, the unproven nature of shark fin’s medicinal status hasn’t hindered demand in the slightest. Bowls of shark fin soup can fetch over $100 each, and the Hong Kong market alone handles over 3000 tons of shark fin every year. All the while, shark populations across the planet are crashing – some have decreased by 90% or more.
Thankfully, governments are starting to wake up to the reality of the situation.
In March of this year, the United States House of Representatives passed the Shark Conservation Act, which would amend both the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to improve the conservation of sharks. Unfortunately, this bill is now tied up in committee in the Senate.
Just this week, Scotland enacted legislation that will prohibit all shark finning in Scottish waters. While this is not the comprehensive fishing ban that is necessary to truly protect the animals, it is a tremendous step in the right direction, and will hopefully send signals to the European Union that shark conservation is a critical issue.
Last month, Johnson Toribiong, the President of Palau, announced a ban on all forms of shark fishing anywhere in Palauan waters. Henceforth, he proclaimed, his entire country would be a shark sanctuary. Palau is the first country in the world to take such progressive action.
So how can we continue to turn the tide and save these incredible creatures?
1) Boycott companies like Seagate that try to legitimize shark finning.
Shark fin isn’t just sold in Asia. Believe it or not, you can find it in markets all over the world — largely because it is camouflaged by gel caps and a white plastic bottle. Seagate, a supplement company, renders shark fins into powder, hides them under a childproof cap, and markets the resulting product to natural food stores. The actions of this company — which actually has the audacity to proudly proclaim itself “the only producer of [powdered shark fin cartilage] in the world” — cannot be tolerated. I encourage you to contact the company directly, at 1-888-505-GATE.
Oh, and when they tell you “No, we’re not taking sharks for their fins, it’s actually a byproduct of a food fishery” — just ask them what part of the shark is worth the most. Then feel free to lambaste them for supporting an unmanaged, unregulated shark fishery that targets diminishing stocks off the coast of Baja California.
2) Avoid buying seafood from grocers that sell shark.
Incredibly, some major US seafood retailers still sell shark and shark products. Publix, Giant Eagle, H.E.B., and Supervalu (the company which operates as Albertson’s, Cub Foods, Lucky, Shaw’s, and many other regional banners) are all known to sell shark in some locations.
3) Support political initiatives that promote shark protection.
The United States and Europe are moving forward, but not quickly enough. We need to demand that the US Senate to ratify the Shark Conservation Act, and the European Union needs to incorporate the Scottish example into its overall fishing policy.
4) Go to Palau.
No, I can’t afford it either, but it’s still important to mention. Palau is a small and relatively impoverished country; it is making tremendous strides towards sustainable ocean stewardship, but there are certainly grumbles about the costs of such behavior in the short run. Anything we can do to inject dollars into the Palauan economy would help to reward these progressive decisions and to support current leadership.
It’s comforting to see us finally throwing off the anachronistic sharks-are-bad misconception. We’ve come a long way in that respect. Movies like Sharkwater are changing the way that we think about sharks by transforming them from monstrous to magnificent. Even the creator of Jaws, Peter Benchley, has done a tremendous amount of work supporting shark conservation efforts and rebuilding the image of these animals in the public eye.
So let’s make use of this progress. Sharks are mysterious, charismatic creatures – why are we tolerating the cruel barbarity of finning?
Stop the slaughter. Get shark products out of our markets. Demand more shark sanctuaries and marine protected areas so these creatures can thrive. If we can do that, well, we may just save them after all.