People in general are terrified of sharks. Many people think that a dead shark is the best shark. But how did sharks gain such a negative reputation? Miranda MacQuitty, author of the book, Shark, says that worldwide, 30 people die each year from shark attacks. This seems to be a small number in comparison to the actual probability of being attacked – “a person has a one in 300 million chance of being killed by a shark.”
Maybe it is because of the negative stigma placed on sharks, but for hundreds of years, sharks have been killed –without remorse- for consumer use. Virtually every part of a shark has the ability of being used for some type of product. The most tragic of practices appears to be shark finning – to make soup.
Shark finning is the act of catching a shark, cutting off its fins, throwing the live carcass back into the water to slowly die because it cannot swim to save its life. For what? A bowl of soup. Guy Harvey, founder of the Ocean Foundation conservation group, says that 1,000 sharks are slaughtered each day just for the fins.
Shark Fin Soup is a status symbol and expresses high class. If you’re eating shark fin soup, you must be important. It is a rich, gelatinous soup with a chicken stock base that is apparently delicious. Marie Levine, executive director at the Shark Research Institute, says that the cartilage added to the soup does nothing to the taste. She says shark fin is high in mercury, so there is really no point in eating it at all.
Along with killing a shark species’ that has survived the worst of the worst times in Earth’s history, people are also successfully managing to damage their own health by eating shark fin soup. While high in sodium, it is also high in mercury. It is not tested for other heavy metals, so it is unclear the exact risks. Researchers suggest that if you are going to eat shark fin soup, then you should be an adult healthy male and should not eat it more than once per month. Women and children are advised not to eat it at all due to the risk of heavy metals. And, it’s not cheap. Shark fins are sold for anywhere between one hundred dollars per pound and can go up to 300 dollars per pound, according to Debbie Salamone of the Bradenton Herald. Prepared, a bowl of soup can cost anywhere from 50 dollars to 150 dollars in high end restaurants. “An estimated 10.7 million blue sharks are killed annually, and some populations of hammerhead sharks have declined up to 99 percent in heavily fished regions. While the fin trade may be lucrative, the rest of the shark is often worth very little by comparison.” There are some companies that are attempting to come up with a similar alternative to shark fin soup, but so far, people aren’t falling for it.
In Austin, Texas, there is only one known restaurant that serves shark fin soup – T & S Seafood Restaurant on N. Lamar Blvd. In an interview with Tina Huynh, part owner and waitress, she explained that no one has ever come into her restaurant asking her about the shark fin soup on her menu. T & S offers two types of shark fin soup – both costing about 10 dollars a cup. She also said that in Chinese culture, Shark Fin Soup is healthy for pregnant a woman – which is, in fact, false according to studies conducted by the Taipei Central News Agency. She also claimed that shark fin soup is good for your skin and is a high class status symbol.
Not only is shark fin soup detrimental to one’s health, but it is also hazardous to the ecosystem. Shark finning is throwing off the natural predation balance in the world. In the article Too Few Sharks is a Bad Thing, it is explained that “the decline of the primary predator could unbalance the entire marine food chain.” According to Eli Martinez, editor of Shark Diver Magazine, the government originally realized that sharks were a hot commodity and they taught fishermen how to catch sharks, how to long line for them, and how to sell them to Asian markets, “then, 15 years later, they decided that sharks were over fished and said to stop. So basically, they taught everyone how to fish for sharks, educated them, then said stop and learn to do something else.”
The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 states that it is illegal to:
“(1) remove any shark fin (including the tail) at sea; (2) have a fin aboard a fishing vessel unless the fin is naturally attached to the carcass; (3) transfer a fin from one vessel to another or receive a fin unless it is naturally attached; or (4) land a fin that is not naturally attached to a carcass or land a carcass without fins naturally attached.”
Levine explains that this act helps protect the sharks, but it does not close up the loopholes – it only technically applies to fishermen.
Andy Murch, shark conservationist and photographer, explains that not all finning is illegal. “It may be incorrigible or ethically corrupt but when conducted in international waters it is completely legal except when endangered species are targeted. A lot of shark fishing does occur on the continental shelves which are generally inside the economic exclusion zones of individual countries. When this happens, it is particularly devastating because the coastal sharks tend to be less transient and therefore more susceptible to localized depletion, which upsets the food chain.”
What is being done about shark finning practices all over the world? Samantha Whitcraft of the University of Miami and Oceanic Defense explains that they try to prevent the practice via education outreach. They talk with restaurants and marinas and try to gain their support by telling them about their program and the benefits of being a conservationist. Many people are excited about it and are more than happy to help with the cause. If people argue that sharks are worth a lot of money, Whitcraft explains that a live shark is worth much more than a dead shark anyways. She explains that a shark population can be a 75,000 dollar per year diving industry as compared to three to four hundred dollars per shark fin. Training fishermen to be tour guides and teaching about shark history could be a very profitable tourism gimmick that could not be possible without living sharks.
Whitcraft explains that there are several ways to get the attention of the people. In the end, when it comes to educating the public, even the littlest fact could be the one to change hundreds of opinions. “There is a study coming out next month that shows that mercury is linked to sexual dysfunction…hello…fishermen?”
Note: This is a school assignment for Research Gathering and Analysis MC 3374 Fall 2009