04 October 2011

Over-fishing, fin soup demand imperils global shark species

The shark is one of the oldest living vertebrate—they are one of nature’s most successful evolutionary creatures. Fossils date the earliest of shark species at approximately 400 million years ago (a few hundred millenniums before the dinosaurs). For perspective, the modern human came onto the scene roughly fifty-thousand years ago and only developed the written word and first sea-worthy ships roughly five-thousand years ago. Today, aggressive fishing methods, demand for personal care products containing shark-derived ingredients, and fins (shark fin soup, considered a delicacy by the wealthy) takes the lives of 26-73 million sharks each year.

As most shark species function as top predators, they have a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the ocean's ecosystem. As the number of sharks decline, species like the manta-ray and other fish increase in population and begin to further deplete lower ocean life (clams, crabs) which present a whole other set of ecological concerns. Shark populations have been largely affected by the global fin trade, an issue that has become foremost in importance to conservationists.

Like most whims of the rich, shark fin soup is bland in flavor, consumed purely as a status symbol, and acquired at enormously detrimental consequences to the environment. Shark finning, an incredibly wasteful killing of tens of millions of sharks annually, involves catching, removal of the shark’s fin, and then throwing the shark back into the ocean. Without their fins, the shark will starve to death, drown, or die from attack by other ocean species. Despite the risks facing the shark, this ocean-dweller suffers from two major issues—disparate support from conservationists and a serious public image problem.

Despite the Jaws-ification of many a mindset towards the shark, conservationists have recently gained significantly from influential supporters such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Edward Norton, Chinese billionaire Zhang Yue, British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, and retired-professional basketball player Yao Ming.

Branson, Ming and Yue have joined the conservationist group WildAid in a new campaign to draw attention to the destructive effects of the shark fin trade on the shark species. For all the hyperbolic fear of sharks in stoked by much of the media, awareness of the risks facing the shark is slowly increasing. For the little known about shark behavior, the danger they present to humans is greatly exaggerated.

In 2010, 6 people died from wounds sustained in shark attacks, and 73 were injured. From the years 2000 to 2010, an average of five people died annually from shark attacks globally. Despite this small number, the public is arguably terrified of shark attacks, and the media stokes these fears with impunity. Five deaths annually attributed to sharks, and scores of people are in hysterics over the danger this animal supposedly represents.

To put this in perspective, the CDC estimates there are an average of 1,351 deaths annually from food-related pathogens in the United States. Those who eat animal products presumably don’t think twice about dropping a pound of ground beef into their shopping carts, or chowing down on chicken for dinner. Yet, the news rarely covers food-related deaths unless they present the proper sensationalism—one could only imagine the full-tilt meltdown of the news if shark attacks killed 1,351 people in the US each year. From this point of view, dropping that hamburger into the shopping cart is the equivalent of not only jumping into the water, but also outright slapping the shark.

For the average of five deaths per year from attacks, it is much more likely that one would drown while swimming (or to be struck by lightning while drowning) than be at risk from a shark.

On September 6 of this year, California passed Assembly Bill 376, banning the possession of shark fins and trade associated. Once signed into law, California will join Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii in aggressive pursuit of shark fin traders. In a large-scale UK study of the world’s oceans, estimates place the shark species has declined by nearly 80%, and that the ocean is 70% free of sharks.

Nathan Rivas
Nathan is a passionate animal advocate and vegan in the Seattle-area, who lives with a crazed dachshund, an enormous Maine coon and a judgemental short haired black cat. Nathan graduated with a Bachelors of Science (summa cum laude) from Northeastern University. He is preparing for his Masters of Science program in the fall and likes to make jokes that involve the chemical compound arsole (and is totally addicted to gardein).

Photo Credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/the-lees