January 31, 2007
Sharks: Dying for a Bowl of Soup
Every year, millions of sharks suffer painful deaths from the cruel and wasteful shark fin trade. Whether unintended "bycatch" by or caught specifically for their valuable fins, these animals have their fins removed and then—either dead or dying—are immediately cast back into the water. Shark meat is of low commercial value, so fishers save freezer space for highly valued fish and discard the sharks after the animals are "finned."
The burgeoning market for shark fin soup, a traditional dish in east Asia, is driving this growing practice. But an appetite for soup is contributing to the shocking decline of most large shark species over the past half-century.
As the chief predators of the ocean, sharks play an essential role in the balance of the marine ecosystem. Their overfishing leads to collapsing populations, which—along with that of other large predators—will likely lead to serious consequences for many other ocean species. The effects of shark overfishing are already being seen.
The 2006 Red List of shark species published by the World Conservation Union listed 547 total species of shark and ray. Of these, 110 species are either critically endangered (19), endangered (25) or vulnerable (66), while a further 96 are facing some level of threat. However, there are 205 species of shark or ray for which there are insufficient data to make an assessment, and it is likely that many of these are seriously threatened.
In addition, the effects of unsustainable international trade in the products of some species has prompted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to list the great white, basking and whale shark on Appendix II, which imposes restrictions on international commerce in those species.
Shark fin soup
While shark fin has no flavor and very little nutritional value, it does provide texture to soup, not to mention handsome profits to an industry estimated to be worth $500 million per year. Fins are dried, de-skinned, boiled and sometimes bleached, and then made into soup by the addition of chicken or fish stock, which provides the flavor. The fins of certain species are considered more valuable because of the length and thickness of the "fin needles" that they contain.
Until the 1980s, the consumption of shark fin soup was discouraged in China. However, the Chinese government relaxed its attitude towards what had been seen as an elitist dish, and consumption soared. Mainland China is now the world's biggest end-market for shark fin: the effect on shark populations has been disastrous.
A bowl of shark fin soup can sell for as much as $100. Because of its perceived value, serving shark fin soup at private functions is a way of honoring one's guests and signaling one's wealth and status. Chinese people frequently express the view that no self-respecting host would ever leave shark fin soup off the menu, particularly at weddings and other important social functions, for fear of losing face.
The international trade in shark fins has generated a highly lucrative industry in east Asia, with many shark fin dealers having multi-million dollar annual turnovers. Global Customs data show that over 100 countries are involved in the shark fin trade, the majority of them being exporters. The main consumer countries in Asia are mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand, but large volumes of shark fins are also imported into the US and the EU, to supply local Chinese communities.
The high commercial value of shark fins has led to gangland murders, with one fin trader killing another to warn others off his "patch." In some parts of the world, mafia-style organizations, such as the Chinese Triads, are in complete control of the trade.
There have been numerous seizures of illegal shark fins around the world. In some cases, the sharks were caught in areas where shark fishing is prohibited. In other cases, the vessels were apprehended in areas where finning is illegal and were found to be carrying only fins, or insufficient shark carcasses to account for the number of fins on board—in other words, the sharks had been finned.
Some countries, such as Costa Rica, have strong shark finning regulations but lack the resources to enforce them. As a result, sharks are often finned in totally protected sea areas where all shark fishing is banned. In such cases, the many seizures that have taken place are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg.
In the United States, recent Coast Guard actions against shark finning vessels have uncovered large shipments of illegal and unreported shark fins.
Read more about shark finning regulations.
Mercury with your soup?
Laboratory tests in Hong Kong and Thailand have uncovered levels of mercury in shark fins that far exceed recommended safe levels. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause extensive damage to the nervous system and to fetuses. The increasing consumption of shark fin soup may well cause widespread public health problems resulting from mercury poisoning. In addition, The Washington Post reported concern that shark fins have been processed in China using industrial chemicals.