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Nov032011

Opinions: Shark Finning – The battle between culture and conservation

“More people get killed by vending machines than sharks,” the diving instructor laughed. With those few words of encouragement, I swallowed my fears and jumped. The Great Barrier Reef was more than I had ever imagined and my brief but magical sighting of a reef shark is something I shall never forget. Eager to learn more, I signed up to a closer encounter and before too long found myself holding a baby reef shark. Rough skinned but ultimately beautiful, he stayed perfectly still and my preconceptions sank back into the clear water with him.

Photo courtesy of hermanusbackpackers

Background

Sharks have long been given a bad reputation. The 1975 Spielberg classic, Jaws, didn’t help the matter, along with their high ranking status as one of the ocean’s most deadly killers. It is true, they are on the top of the food chain but with that comes great responsibility. Without them, the ecosystem would find itself completely out of balance. Sharks roamed the planet long before humans and despite bad publicity, only kill on average 10 people a year; on the flip-side, humans kill about 100 million sharks in the same time frame and this number is still climbing.

Shark fin soup

Sinking shark populations have been attributed to the booming market for shark fins. The recent October 2011 shark massacre in Colombia is sadly only one example of mass killing fuelled by human culture. The concept of shark finning dates back to the Ming Dynasty in China where emperors consumed them as part of a soup. As a rare delicacy with elaborate preparation techniques, shark fin soup symbolised wealth, power, prestige and honour. In a culture where food is as much about texture as it is taste, the unusual tasteless shark fin is considered an important contrasting ingredient. The majority of shark species are considered viable for shark fin soup. However some, such as Whale and Basking, are more valued than others, despite the fact that once fins are dried and treated, defining the species is nearly impossible.


Growing demand

The soup has retained its cultural status today, becoming a staple dish on gourmet Chinese menus across the world, sometimes fetching several hundred dollars per bowl. Once reserved for the rich, its expensive price tag is becoming more affordable in booming Chinese and western economies. As well as their significance in the kitchen, shark fins allegedly hold medicinal value. Claims of boosting sexual potency and preventing heart disease are among the benefits, yet shark fin soup holds less vitamin value than a typical vegetable soup. In fact large quantities can potentially be harmful due to the high mercury content.

With monetary success and status intrinsically linked to food in Chinese culture, the booming economy is causing demand for fins to reach new levels. This growing market may have huge financial gain for many, but at a significant cost to marine ecosystems around the world.

The ‘finning’ process

The act of shark finning is and always has been barbaric. In order to get the most out of a trip, fishermen do not keep the bulk of the animal, as the carcass can easily spoil and space on board is needed for more valuable fish products such as tuna. After cutting the fins from the live animal, up to 95% of the shark is thrown back to sea and left to sink to the bottom, where it will inevitably starve to death or drown. This wasteful method often means that fishermen can destroy vast quantities of animals in a single outing without recording numbers caught. This level of fishing is not manageable or sustainable and is already having a huge impact on marine ecosystems. Scientists are yet to accumulate enough data on shark populations to know the full impact. However, knowing that numbers are decreasing, studying them is becoming difficult.

Sharks have always played the villain in myths and stories that have passed down from generation to generation. They are portrayed as ruthless killers and will never have the cute ‘save me’ appeal of other species. Their power and presence in the ocean is undeniable but we are only just beginning to understand these elusive creatures. They were here long before us and have done the time to deserve our respect. Ever since my brief but magical encounter, it is clear that while they are a force to be reckoned with, they are also majestic and graceful. Although a born predator, sharks maintain the ocean’s balance and until this point they have been rulers.

What the experts say

Sharks are imperative to keeping our oceans and our entire planet healthy, yet we are killing them off at an alarming rate, far faster than they can reproduce. Shark finning unfortunately has only really taken off in the past 20-30 years.  There cannot really be one finger of blame pointed…many factors seem to have contributed to this huge rise that has seen the populations of sharks absolutely plummet.”

“If the industry continues, particularly at the rate it is going, we will lose sharks and the perfectly harmonious marine ecosystems that have been so well in tune for millions of years will be completely thrown out of balance. This is not a practice we can afford, or should morally want, to justify and persist with.”

Jenny Hickman, Education Co-ordinator at the SEA LIFE London Aquarium

"The best thing we can do is monitor imports, do more forensic work (DNA testing) to determine species consumed, and continue educating and outreach warning consumers of shark fins that shark fin is unhealthy for them (high mercury) and unhealthy for the ocean.”

“We will continue to help shark populations survive by urging states and governments to regulate the trade like California and Hawaii have done, and work with others to better control shark finning and fishing on the high seas."

David McGuire, Director at SeaStewards.org and Research Associate in the dept. of aqua biology at California Academy of Sciences

The future

Throughout my travels in China and Asia, I revelled in the cultural history and am a firm believer in its conservation. However, I cannot condone the practice of shark finning. Shark fin soup will always remain part of Chinese culture and as such, will not be forgotten. There are alternatives now available to recreate a safer and more sustainable version of the dish for the modern diner. San Francisco based chef Kin Lui talks about the alternatives in the following video:

Currently the shark fin trade is not illegal and education about its affects is not being communicated effectively. People of all ages and backgrounds need to know that their cultural heritage is a precious tool for understanding the past, but allowing practices like shark finning to continue relentlessly, will limit how much we can protect the future.

by Gemma Percy

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Reader Comments (1)

Sharks are probably the most misunderstood creature. Though I've never really had a close encounter with one before, I know that they're not that bad. All I can say to this post is, "if the buying stop, the killing can too."

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLorene | Poster Printing

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