Governments and institutions spend billions researching deforestation, excessive combustion of fossil fuels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and CO2 emissions. They measure carbon footprints, and the public donate millions to offset theirs on land-based projects, such as planting more trees or improving developing nations’ energy efficiency. But virtually nothing is being spent on preserving the balance in the main carbon dioxide-consuming, oxygen-producing interface that covers 71 percent of the planet; the oceans. In fact, billions of dollars are spent every year destroying this precious, life-source giving eco-system that is home to the much-maligned shark.
Ocean food web
Seventy percent of Earth’s surface is not earth at all; it is ocean. The ocean is home to a tiny life-form called phytoplankton. This microscopic organism uses carbon dioxide and releases oxygen through photosynthesis, just like the trees that we want to save, except that it does it on a much greater scale. It is also at the bottom of the food chain in our oceans, being the staple of certain fish and mollusc species. These species, and all the other species in the ocean, are kept in check by the predators above them in the food web. These predators include many species of shark and large pelagic fish that maintain the marine equilibrium down the food chain. Sharks are both predator and scavenger, and as such, contribute to eliminating diseased and genetically defective marine life and help to stabilize fish populations. By maintaining this equilibrium, the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food web, that ultimately produces the great majority of oxygen that we breathe, is kept healthy.
Maintaining the equilibrium
As a small example, overfishing the shark population in Tasmania has led to an increase in their main prey, the octopus. This resulted in greater predation on lobsters and the collapse of the Tasman spiny lobster fishery. Yet sharks are being actively hunted and an estimated 26 to 73 million are killed every year for the fin trade alone. This figure is for the fin trade alone, and does not include sharks caught as by catch, which is estimated to be the same amount again. In some species only an estimated 10 percent of their population remain, but for how long? As of 2008, 126 shark and related species have been listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as threatened with extinction on a global scale. Schools of hundreds of magnificent (and harmless) Basking sharks used to be seen off Britain’s coasts; today any sighting is rare.
Shark fin soup’s popularity
Until the early 1980s, the main threats to sharks, which have been in the ocean for more than 400 million years (some 150 million years before the first life-forms crawled out of the sea and became dinosaurs), had been the odd shark hunter, some recreational fishing, and as byproduct of commercial fisheries. Then the popularity of the Oriental shark fin soup rocketed, through a combination of the political rehabilitation of a once-elitist practice and rapid expansion of the Chinese middle classes, due to economic growth in the Far East. As a status symbol, the so-called “food of the emperors,” it is the dish to be seen eating in a restaurant and offering to guests at a corporate dinner or wedding banquet, and is at the heart of a hugely lucrative multi-billion dollar business. Oceana estimated that Hong Kong alone imports 10 million kgs (4.5 million pounds) of shark fin each year from numerous countries, including Indonesia, India and Spain, which are the biggest suppliers.
Only drug trafficking beats shark-fin dealing for profitability, and often involves Far Eastern mafia overlords. The result has been a massive upswing in the international fin trade, prompting fishermen worldwide to target sharks for their fins and to remove the fins from sharks caught as bycatch in other fisheries. Fin traders have systematically spread the word that fins are valuable to fishermen the world over, often providing equipment and monetary advances in order to secure fins, building secret drying and storage facilities near marine reserves, and bribing and coercing officials to look the other way. Fin-related murders have been documented in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and given the financial margins involved, it’s hardly surprising. One of many dealers on one of the 6,000 inhabited islands of Indonesia can supply more than 500 kgs (1,100 lbs) per month. A wholesaler close to the top of the food chain, selling to a restaurant, charges in excess of $600 US per kilogram (approx $272 per pound). A lowly third-world fisherman might only get $2. The end-consumer gets to pay upwards of $90 a bowl. And for what? Well, basically, chicken or pork broth. The fin actually adds no flavor at all. It is just a texturing agent.
To put the fins in soup bowls and medicine cabinets, man will go to great lengths. Long lining is the preferred method of capture, with lines up to 100 km (62.5 miles) long, carrying 16,000 hooks just below the surface. That’s long enough to go from the boat to outer space. The hooks are baited with fish meat and sometimes-illegal dolphin. Fishermen claim that they are fishing for pelagic fish, such as tuna, barracuda, and dorado. One long line recovered by marine biologist and documentary maker Rob Stewart had hooked 160 sharks, and only revealed five sailfish, four dorado, and a solitary tuna. Turtles, dolphins, and seabirds are also drawn to the lethal bait. Once caught, the shark’s fins are hacked off and the live shark is thrown overboard. There is little market for the rest of its meat and its carcass would take up valuable storage space. Bleeding, wounded and with no means of propulsion or direction, the shark sinks to the depths of the ocean and dies a slow death. But as its fins feed a multi-billion dollar black market industry with Chinese and Taiwanese mafia governance, legislators in developing nations prefer the short-term benefits of some fresh greenbacks to the sustainability of the marine environment and potentially life as we know it.
And it is not just impoverished fishermen in banana republics that are cashing in. Although finning is technically illegal in Europe, in 2008 Spain was among the world’s leading suppliers of shark fins. According to Customs statistics from Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, Spain exported an annual average of one million kilograms (2.2 million pounds) of shark fins to these three countries between 1997 and 2002. “Public pressure across Europe has made a real and positive difference in shark conservation over the past five years, but we need another push to ensure loopholes in the finning ban are finally closed and ministers live up to the commitments of the EU shark Plan of Action,” said Martin Clark, coordinator of the Shark Alliance.
Other shark products
Other popular and equally pointless shark products that drive demand in the Far East are a myriad of pills, creams, and treatments made from shark cartilage. This is based on the belief that sharks are strong and resilient, and by ingesting or absorbing its structure (sharks have no bones), the consumer will develop these characteristics. There is no scientific proof supporting these claims. Sharks also suffer from cancer and other diseases. Given that larger sharks are also suffering from high concentrations of heavy metals such as mercury, these products are actually harmful. Independent surveys have revealed higher than safe level of mercury in shark fins and also extremely high levels of arsenic.
“Jaws” is overrated
The movie “Jaws” gave sharks a bad name. Nearly all shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity or self-defense. We are not part of any shark’s diet, and shark bites rarely remove flesh from victims. The majority of people bitten survive; so even if you were to be accidentally bitten by a shark, you would have a greater than 80 percent chance of survival. The unlucky victims die from blood loss from a large wound or severed artery. And they can consider themselves very unlucky; the chances of being killed by a coconut are fifty times greater, and there is more likelihood of dying from a lightning strike, which claims as many as 2000 lives per year worldwide.
On average five people die in shark attacks each year and only one death was recorded for 2007. In his book, Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance, Peter Stark writes, “When it comes to predatory animals, humans have little to fear but themselves. We kill one another at a rate of more than one million per year, mostly wartime casualties.”
In the US alone, cows killed 22 and domestic dogs killed 33 people in 2010, and there is more likelihood of dying from a lightning strike, which claimed 29 lives that year. In fact, there is a far greater probability of dying from eating seafood than from becoming it, when driving home from the restaurant (1.2 million road accident deaths per annum). Given that eight million people die of starvation annually, there is an even greater chance of dying from not eating at all.
There are approximately 400 known species of sharks in our oceans. New species are discovered periodically, including a new species of Hammerhead in 2006 off the coast of South Carolina. Also in 2006, the Epaulette or “walking” shark was first scientifically recorded in Papua New Guinea. Sharks produce few young and only reach sexual maturity at a relatively late age, sometimes as late as 25. Some sharks live to be as old as 50.
If this wholesale slaughter continues unabated, we will succeed in all but wiping out one of the oldest creatures on the planet, the guardians of the seas that provide much of the planet with food and ultimately the air that we all breathe. Are the ancient sharks, which have existed since there were only two lifeless landmasses, which have survived through five major extinctions that wiped most life from the planet, going to be pushed over the edge and into the dark oblivion forever? We, as a species, and if we care about the future of the planet, cannot let this happen.
What can you do?
- Lobby for an end to shark finning.
- Stop eating fish caught by longliners, the main technique for catching sharks. TheFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 40,000 sea turtles are killed annually in the global longline fisheries, which also kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds.
- Join advocacy groups
Watch the film Sharkwater
Christopher Bartlett is a member of The Ecology Global Network’s Scientific Advisory Counsel.