4 Lame Excuses for Shark Finning and Why it Must End

Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans

This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on June 2, 2011.

From bad...

A powerful conservation movement is afoot in the United States. Shark finning — the practice of catching sharks, slicing their fins off, and then dumping the animals overboard (often still alive and slowly bleeding to death) — is being exposed for the monstrosity it is. Globally, we slaughter tens of millions of sharks each year. And for the most part, we do it for the fins, which can fetch hundreds of dollars a pound.

This is insanity. We need sharks in our oceans. Without sharks and other top-level carnivores to keep populations of sub-predators in check, we run the risk of losing productive and well-balanced marine ecosystems to trophic collapse. Thankfully, some communities are finally saying no to shark finning. Hawaii banned the possession and sale of shark fins in 2010. Washington State signed a similar prohibition into law on May 12 of this year, and in California, a ban on trafficking in shark fins is working its way through the legislature.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of such a law passing in California. More shark fins are sold and consumed in the Golden State than in any of the other 49. If we can manage to protect these unique animals under California state law, we may not be far from a nationwide moratorium on this staggeringly unsustainable practice.

Here are several common arguments being used to defend this practice, followed by my thoughts on why they’re unsound.

1: Shark fin consumption is a cultural practice and tradition.

Some cultures have a history of consuming shark fin. I am not in any place to pass judgment on these cultures, and I don’t want to. All I want to say is that culture is not the unchanging monolith that some make it out to be.

... to worse...

Culture is a dynamic representation of both the history and the current state of a particular group, be it based around attitudes, ideals, goals, shared experiences, or other connective forces. A culture is not a static thing — it changes with the times. Over the centuries, many cultural practices have ended in favor of the evolving wisdom and consciousness of the human race. For example, while I may not be part of a culture that has historically practiced shark finning, I am a member of a culture that has historically practiced slavery.

I am a Caucasian American and a direct descendant of slave-owning ancestors who believed in the inferiority of human beings with a darker skin color than their own. I even have relatives who died while shooting at the Union army to protect this cultural practice (among other things, of course). Slavery was a common practice in North America for centuries. It was part of our culture. It was also wrong. And, thankfully, it ended.

Human beings evolve. Our cultures evolve. As we learn more about our planet and ourselves, we gain the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. We now know far too much about humanity’s dependence on Earth’s environment to keep slaughtering sharks for their fins. The tragedy of shark finning is more than just sharks dying for shortsighted profit — it’s that today, when we have learned so much about sharks and their irreplaceable roles in our oceans, we continue to mindlessly slaughter them in the name of “culture.”

2: Shark fin is good for your health.

Some schools of Eastern medicine equate shark fin consumption with heightened energy and virility. I am certainly no nutritionist, and will not attempt to dispute this belief. That said, it’s a proven fact that a typical bowl of shark fin soup is in actuality quite devoid of most vitamins when compared to, say, a similar serving of vegetable soup. Shark fin does have some nutritional value — especially some key elements like iron and zinc — but it’s nothing one couldn’t get from any number of other foods. To kill a shark for such a meager nutritional reward is a terrible bargain for the planet at large.

3: Sharks are dangerous! They eat people!

Certain works of art, literature and film have such a profound impact on society that they literally shape our culture. Jaws was one of those films. It terrified an entire generation and set shark conservation efforts back 20 years.

... to even worse.

Jaws was also one of the most inaccurate and unfair films ever made when it comes to portraying actual shark behavior. The film that made us all afraid to go back in the water had virtually zero basis in reality, yet it engendered a phobia of sharks that has afflicted us for decades. The problem is so acute, in fact, that Peter Benchley, the creator of Jaws, had a massive crisis of conscience and dedicated much of his later life to ocean conservation and shark protection efforts.

Globally, shark encounters with humans account for about 10 deaths a year, give or take a handful. By contrast, lightning strikes kill over 20,000 people each year. Dog bites, pig attacks, and even fugu blowfish (due to improper preparation) cause more human fatalities annually than sharks. Sharks are not the mindless killing machines that we once feared they were. The contribution sharks make to a healthy ocean vastly outweighs their danger to the human race.

4: We can fin sharks in a sustainable manner.

Really? Can we? I personally doubt that very much. We understand very little about most species of sharks, and it is extremely difficult to properly manage a fishery when we lack such key information as growth rate, migration patterns, and reproductive behavior.

It's not worth it.

That, however, is not even the main issue. Sustainability goes beyond choosing which species are acceptable to consume and which aren’t. One of the core issues here is respect for the animal — which, in this case, is manifest in how we are using it for our own purposes. How can we have a sustainable fishery that involves cutting off the fins of a living creature and dumping the rest? This kind of waste and disrespect has no place in a modern food system that is based on ecosystem awareness and sound resource management. To look at this in simple economic terms: If a given shark weighs, say, 150 pounds, the fins might be 10 pounds of that. So to cut off the fins and dump the rest is equivalent to a retention rate of 1:14 — one pound of catch, 14 pounds of waste.

The very act of shark finning flies directly in the face of sustainable living. We need to outgrow this practice and embrace a positive relationship with sharks. For those of you residing in California, please contact your state representative as soon as possible and urge her/him to support AB 376. An ocean without sharks just won’t work.

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Red, white, and bluefin

Stars, stripes, and scales

In an age and state where the word “patriotism” has been misinterpreted, manipulated, maligned, and mangled beyond recognition, it is often difficult to discern not only what it means to be patriotic, but what it means to be an American.  In my experience, it is only on a rare day that it becomes unnecessary to differentiate between vying definitions – nationalistic pride, support of entrenched policies, endorsement of governmental shift, facebook-friendship of standing politicians, etc. – before I can state without equivocation that I am proud to be an American.

Today is one of those days.

Early this morning, Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the US Department of the Interior, finally stood up against those who would doom the beleaguered Northern bluefin tuna to death by sushi knife.  Citing the management failures of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and underscoring the unquestionable peril in which this noble fish finds itself, Strickland announced that the Obama administration will indeed be supporting Monaco’s proposal to list the Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.

A bloody shame

A bloody shame

This is a game-changer.  The world’s largest economy has finally weighed in on one of the most pressing issues facing the ocean conservation movement – the simple fact that commercially exploited fish have thus far been utterly ignored by the institutionalized international processes designed to offer respite to endangered species.  The Northern bluefin tuna, decimated by the rapacity of the global sushi industry and of bluefin traders like the Mitsubishi corporation, has hitherto been largely ignored by the world’s protectionary bodies in favor of ICCAT, a malfunctioning, incoherent (mis)management system that has brought the bluefin to the brink of the abyss… but perhaps this is finally at an end.

The United States government’s role in this ecological chess match is unique.  Even though US economy does not have a significant share of the world’s bluefin production, it does constitute a sizable share of overall consumption.  Certainly it is not on a scale to match Japan (the world’s foremost consumer of bluefin, devouring approximately 80% of all bluefin tuna yanked from our ailing oceans) but the US sushi industry has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a skyrocketing demand for bluefin tuna.  Many of the world’s most well-known sushi icons are based in the United States, and there is no shortage of American consumers willing to shell out fat stacks of greenbacks for the ephemeral bliss of a two-bite communion with Our Lady of O-toro.  As such, the US is more than just a global economic engine in this scenario.  The conviction of the Obama administration to stand behind Monaco’s proposal is a food policy statement – an admission that as we as a global community grow, we need to begin to make difficult choices, and that desire and wealth can no longer stand alone as the market mechanisms that drive our luxury food supply.  We must begin to temper them with an awareness of the impacts our choices have on our environment.

Not on his watch

Not on his watch

Certainly this is not the end of the struggle.  Whether or not the bluefin will receive the support and protection it requires will be decided by a conference of all CITES parties in Doha, Qatar, later this month – and it will likely be a bloody affair.  Japan vehemently opposes the proposal and is expected to break out every weapon in its considerable arsenal in defense of its hard-line position.  China, too, has announced its opposition to the listing.  Support for the proposal within the European Union is tenuous at best and could still sour.  Many other countries, such as Australia (which has a bluefin industry of its own, albeit a different stock and species), New Zealand, and Brazil remain on the fence.  There is still a great deal of work to do.

So while the champagne moment is yet to come, I would suggest making some room in the fridge to chill a bottle or two.  The support of the Obama administration was an absolute necessity if the bluefin is to survive the CITES gauntlet, and with it secured, there may just be some hope for the world’s most expensive fish – and, symbolically, for the oceans themselves – after all.

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The usual suspects

Same old same old

Same old same old

Sometimes when I sit down to write one of these posts, I get a sort of melancholy déjà vu.  So many of the problems that plague our oceans stem from the same root causes; it’s almost like writing the same article over and over again.  Avarice, financial myopia, cultural misunderstandings, and apathetic complacency are frustratingly ubiquitous when we try to decipher and disassemble the tangled, parasitic relationship that we’ve developed with our oceans.

It also seems like every time we start digging into ocean conservation issues anywhere on the planet, we find ourselves up against the same culprits: a small clique of nations that have taken to fishing in a serious way.  I suppose this is logical given the total consumption (as well as the per capita consumption) of seafood in these particular countries: they are the source of a tremendous share of the world’s seafood demand, and thus have a vested interest in access the supply freely and without interference from other parties.  Still, one would think that their respective decision makers would understand that in order to have fish tomorrow, we have to take proper care of the fish today…. right?

Anyhow, onto the matter at hand.

Perks of the job

Perks of the job

Last week, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), a body which oversees the regulations governing tuna fishing throughout much of the world’s largest ocean, came together in Tahiti for its annual meeting.  Representatives from over a dozen countries flew to Papeete in order to discuss the worrying state of Pacific tunas, concentrating especially on skipjack and bigeye.

There was a great hope that much could be achieved at this meeting.  Scores of artisanal fishermen teamed up with local and international NGOs in any number of demonstrations to drive home the fact that these animals are in need of protection.  The Pacific is the last ocean with bigeye tuna populations anywhere near healthy levels, and it was made clear that unless stringent and effective quotas are implemented — in conjunction with new closures and off-limits areas — we may lose this stock as well.

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

As I discussed in a previous series of posts, a great deal of the Pacific bigeye stock is taken as bycatch by seiners that are seeking skipjack tuna.  In the Western and Central Pacific, these seiners tend to operate in what are known as “donut holes” or “high seas pockets”: areas of ocean that are surrounded by the territorial waters of various countries but are just beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of any of them.  Seining was banned in two of the four major pockets in the Pacific Ocean during the WCPFC meeting in 2008, and most of the Pacific island nations were hoping to seal the deal and protect the remaining two this year.

Alas.  Enter the usual suspects.

There are three key states that have a long-standing track record of blocking this kind of progress in the Pacific: South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.  These countries tend to work as a bloc to forestall regulatory measures that would preclude their fleets from plundering the Pacific at will.  Lamentably, this meeting proved to be no exception.

On my own

On my own

A group of small island states proposed a 50% reduction in the overall bigeye tuna quota.  South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, joined by China and the Philippines, opposed the measure — even though their own scientists advised them to do otherwise.  In the face of this obstinacy, the proposal never had a chance.  It died horribly right there in the room and left the Pacific bigeye populations unprotected.

To add insult to injury, I should note that it was actually the Japanese that raised the issue about tuna welfare in the first place.  The Japanese delegation went on record early in the meeting stating that no other tuna species can be allowed to decline to the point of meeting the CITES Appendix I criteria, as the northern bluefin does (this was, by the way, the first time that the Japanese government has admitted that northern bluefin qualifies for CITES protection.)  Japan also expressed concern over the state of sharks, especially hammerheads, in the Pacific.  This is good news, right?  The largest per capita seafood consumer in the world standing up for the oceans?

Well, a couple of days later, they reversed their stance, blocked all precautionary proposals and quota reductions, and ensured that bigeye and yellowfin tuna continue on the fast track to endangered species land.  Thanks guys.

It's pronounced "POOR-bee-gle"

Yeah... like an impoverished puppy

To be fair, there’s really no room for any kind of flag-waving on my part.  The US delegation actually arrived at the meeting planning to oppose these precautionary measures as well.  In the end they were persuaded to abstain from the vote, but still, hardly a pride-inducing course of action.

The presence of a new and woefully inexperienced chairman did not help matters.  At one point, when one of the delegations raised concerns about the state of porbeagle sharks in the Pacific, the chairman was quoted as saying, “What?  What’s a pork barrel shark?”

Yeah.  I’m not kidding.

Catch of the day

Catch of the day

In the end, it pretty much all fell apart.  Despite strong efforts from France, Australia, numerous Pacific island nations, Greenpeace, and several local environmental groups, the meeting ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.  Two enormous high seas pockets remain open to purse seiners that regularly take large quantities of juvenile bigeye.  Sharks and tuna are still without succor, their diminishing populations at the mercy of relentless longliners.

Still… there’s gotta be a silver lining here somewhere.  Hang on, I’ll find something…

Oh, yeah.  Here we go.

This miserable outcome has upset many of these Pacific island states to no end.  In fact, it may lead renegotiation of access agreements by these tiny countries: if the WCPFC can’t effectively protect these delicate fisheries, the Pacific island governments may just have to go it alone.  They’re even talking about withdrawing from the Commission if it can’t serve it’s purpose, and relying on bilateral negotiation in an attempt to keep these foreign fleets out of their waters.

Preach on

Preach on

Wait a minute — that’s it?  That’s the silver lining?  We’re finding our solace in the breakdown of an attempted multinational management body in favor of a clutch of one-off two-party agreements of dubious strength and effectiveness?  In an emergency backpedaling in the face of failure?  In the inability of key stakeholder countries to see the writing on the wall and to take the simple, logical action necessary to protect their economy, environment, and children?

Wow.  Whatever’s happening in Copenhagen right now must be contagious.

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From tigers to lions

Net full of problems

Anyone who has seen one of my presentations or endured my presence on a panel has probably heard me lambaste bluefin tuna ranching.  I often employ a hackneyed analogy to describe this phenomenon by equating ranching bluefin to “farming tigers.”  The reasoning behind this has to do with the position that bluefin occupies in the oceanic food web.  Bluefin tuna are top carnivores in the watery realms, and thus are similar to the great cats and other apex predators here on terra firma.

The point here is simple: we don’t farm great cats.  Not just because they don’t taste good (although I can’t imagine that they do), but because it makes exactly zero sense from the perspective of an agriculturist.  A tiger farmer would have to raise or purchase grass or grain to feed herbivores (such as cows), raise and fatten the cows, and then slaughter the cows to feed the tigers.  The amount of salable protein generated by butchering the tigers would be only a fraction of what the farmer could realize by butchering and selling the cows (not to mention how much more efficient it would be to simply sell the grain itself for human consumption.)

There are two differences between a bluefin ranch and a theoretical tiger farm from a markets perspective.  The first is demand.  Aside from a peripheral black market, based primarily in China, that values the penis and gall bladder of the animal for pseudo-medicinal purposes, there is no demand for tiger flesh.  Bluefin, unfortunately, is struggling under the weight of tremendous demand driven by a rapidly expanding sushi industry.

Top cat

The second difference is the legal recognition (and a strong social awareness) of the animal’s plight.  All of the world’s tiger subspecies are, lamentably, endangered at best. Ironically, the charisma of the tiger and the widespread awareness of its unenviable situation has earned it a tremendous amount of support in the form of global conservation effort.  In fact, the tiger was voted the “world’s favorite animal” in a 2005 survey by Animal Planet (even defeating such lovable competitors as the dog and the dolphin.)

The bluefin tuna has no such succor.  It is a migratory oceanic species and thus extremely difficult to protect through national legislation.  International agreements such as ICCAT continue to fail to address the actual issues threatening the species (overfishing, bycatch, etc.)   Moreover, while this animal is fascinating and extremely charismatic to those fortunate few who have interacted with it, the bluefin still suffers from the “it’s just a fish” veil of dismissal that keeps us at arm’s length from many of our ocean’s most awe-inspiring denizens.

Feeding food to food

The point of all this is to say that while we would never consider farming tigers as a protein source, we farm bluefin in great numbers, despite their relatively equivalent positions in their respective ecosystems.  It’s an incredibly resource-intensive task to farm a bluefin.  For every salable pound of tuna that comes out of a bluefin farm, up to twenty-five pounds of wild fish (often sardines and anchoveta from unmanaged fisheries) have gone in as feed.  To make matters worse, bluefin are only very rarely reared ex ovo; traditionally, the juveniles are purloined from the wild and transferred to pens for fattening.  Thus, every tuna that one purchases from a bluefun tuna farm is actually a wild tuna that never had an opportunity to breed.  Needless to say, the world’s wild bluefin tuna populations are shadows of their former selves.  The bluefin is, for all intents and purposes, an endangered species.  Yet we continue to devour it without compunction.

Things seem bleak, indeed.  And it is from this stark landscape that a new player has arisen, with a plan to ease the pressure.


Hawaii Oceanic Technology, a Honolulu-based company, is aiming to create a new tuna farm that instead of adding to the woes of the bluefin, will focus on one of it’s relatives: Thunnus obesus, the bigeye tuna.  Ostensibly, this will lessen the overall pressure on bluefin by offering a similar fish to appease market demand.

Net pen aquaculture

While bluefin is generally fattened in inshore net pens, Hawaii Oceanic intends to construct an offshore farm, located about three miles off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  One of the potential advantages of offshore aquaculture is that it is thought to reduce the impact of waste by allowing effluent to diffuse through a much deeper water column.  The revolutionary Kona Blue operation, similarly located in Hawaii, utilizes this principle in its production of Seriola rivioliana, which it markets as “Kona Kampachi.”

While there is still a pronounced paucity of evidence regarding this hypothesis, it seems to be based on reasonable assumptions, and I don’t want to dwell on it as I feel there are three other, more important issues at stake.  Additionally, the prototype “Oceanspheres” that Hawaii Oceanic are developing for use as fish enclosures are really quite impressive — especially their use of OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion) technology, which is a virtually untapped renewable energy resource.  I’m very interested to see where this leads.

Anyhow, back to the issues at hand.

Sexy sexy tuna belly

First off: market demand.  Bigeye tuna, known as mebachi in Japanese, is indeed a source of tuna fillets, fatty belly cuts, etc.  But to be frank, mebachi toro is simply not as alluring as honmaguro (bluefin) toro.  As a matter of fact, the best replacement that I have found for the buttery, supple taste and texture of bluefin belly is high-quality shiromaguro toro – a belly cut from the albacore, bluefin’s much smaller cousin.  I am not alone in my beliefs here.  Sure, mebachi is still a much-demanded fish, but will it really affect the demand for bluefin?

The second issue is feed.  As I mentioned before, farming bluefin is a protein-hungry business.  Why would farming bigeye be any different?  Hawaii Oceanic states that their goal is to eventually replace the fish used in the feed process with soy or an algae-based protein source, but that they will need to use fish meal at first.

Certainly one has to begin any new venture in stages… but how long are we talking about?  There is no need for another fish-based tuna farm.  There was never any environmental benefit to these operations in the first place.  If indeed it were a farm fed entirely from sustainable sources, that would potentially change the equation — but there’s a big word between now and then, and that word is “eventually.”  The lack of a hard timetable here casts some doubt on the rosy picture that Hawaii Oceanic has painted.

The final issue is the sourcing of the fish itself.  One of the major problems with bluefin farms is that the fish are taken as juveniles from flagging wild stocks.  Hawaii Oceanic pledges to surmount this obstacle by hatching bigeye from eggs in a controlled facility.  These fry would then be transferred to the offshore pens for rearing.

"Mommy, where does tuna come from?"

This is a good plan, if it can be achieved.  In essence, by allowing the company to breed tuna from a small clutch of broodstock rather than abducting wild fish, they can produce tuna without major detrimental impacts to the local populations (at least from a sourcing perspective.)  But can they do it?

The A-Marine Kindai bluefin operation in Japan has managed to create a system where they hatch their fish in a similar manner.  This type of aquaculture, known as “closed life cycle farming,” is certainly a step in the right direction.  But is it missing the point?

Four pounds of fish in a three-ounce package

Wow! Four pounds of fish in a convenient three-ounce package

Even if this kind of thing ends up working, we’re still dealing with an apex predator, and thus eating very high on the food chain.  When trophic dynamics are considered, it becomes clear that the amount of energy demanded from natural (or, in this case, quasi-natural) cycles to produce something like a farmed tuna dwarfs the actual amount of protein received by the consumer.  Farming this kind of animal is reinforcing a negative paradigm that has been held as gospel in the North American diet for far too long.  Moreover, tuna do not have the fish oils and the omega-3s that many smaller, cold-water fish (such as mackerel and sardines) do, nor do they reproduce as quickly.  Not to mention that this type of aquaculture is never going to “feed the world” — it’s simply too expensive.

Now that's progress!

While Hawaii Oceanic may be attempting to build a better mousetrap with this theoretical bigeye farm, we may be swapping tigers for lions.  It we want a harmonious and sustainable relationship with the world’s oceans, it will take more than finding a way to create larger amounts of what the market currently demands.  We need to be willing to significantly alter the way that we think about food, and I’m not sure how much of a change a bigeye farm really represents.

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Update: Freshwater Eel / Unagi (CONTEST)

Please stop eating unagi.

An adult European eel, Anguilla anguilla.

A recent article in the Guardian, a prestigious UK newspaper that has an entire department devoted to environmental issues, has reported that eel populations across the European continent have dropped by 95% in the past 25 years.  Sadly, this isn’t really that surprising.

Steven Morris, the article’s author, writes that “a ban on exporting eels out of Europe – they are a popular dish in the far east – is proposed, along with a plan to severely limit the fishing season and the number of people who will be allowed licences [sic -- heh].”  Unfortunately, that is the extent to which the article discusses the connection of the eel’s dire situation to the sushi world.

Eels in captivity.  Chances are exceptionally good that they were captured from a dying European or American population.

The unagi industry is based primarily in China and relies on glass eels (babies) caught in the wild rather than hatching animals within the farms.

There’s not a whole lot I can add to my current entry on unagi.  It already ends with “Don’t eat it.”  I guess this isn’t so much of an update as it is me beating the same old drum.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this animal is in serious trouble.  We need to give it a break.  There are other options.  Honestly, drench just about any fatty, sustainable whitefish (I suggest Alaskan or Canadian black cod) in kabeyaki sauce, broil it or sear it with a blowtorch, and serve it with sesame seeds over rice: it’s gonna taste a whole lot like unagi.

Listen, I’m not trying to be obnoxious about this.  I just am particularly passionate about this issue.  The eel is an incredible creature, and we know so little about it.  All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic swim all the way to one small tract of ocean — the Sargasso Sea — to spawn.  For the longest time, we actually thought they simply incarnated from mud and weeds in rivers because we had never seen breeding eels. There’s still so much we can learn about this animal.

Your entry will be prepared in this fashion.

Let me put something out there, as added incentive.  How about this — everyone who reads this post, please comment on it with your alternative to eel.  It could be anything you want (but black cod, aka sablefish, has already been taken, so that doesn’t count; and no unsustainable items — that goes without saying.)  I’ll wait ten days from posting.  On the eleventh day (May 15th), I’ll take all the suggestions to Chef Kin Lui at Tataki Sushi Bar.  He will look at the list of suggestions, try them out as kabeyaki-style dishes, and choose a favorite.  I’ll post a picture of the winning dish.  Whoever wins will receive a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco, as well as a signed copy of my book.

Good luck!

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