INVESTIGATING THE SHARK FIN INDUSTRY
Why Are Sharks Important?
Sharks play an important role within our ocean ecosystems. They are apex predators who reside at the top of the food chain. Their role in the ecosystem keeps prey populations healthy by feeding off the weak and the sick. Sharks have played this vital role for more than 400 million years and have evolved with their changing environment to be the ultimate efficient predator.
Apex predators tend to reach sexual maturity later in life and to reproduce in lower numbers, thereby keeping their populations low. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation.
No one knows exactly what will happen if we remove these apex predators from marine ecosystems, however the results could be catastrophic. Biologists describe a process known as trophic cascade, whereby every species in a food web is impacted when one level is removed. For example, as one species suddenly find themselves with no natural predators, they may over populate and consume all of their natural prey, and as a result species after species disappear from the food web. To make matters worse, less diverse ecosystems are less resilient in the face of other threats like changing temperatures and acidity resulting from climate change.
This is why it is crucial that we maintain these apex predators in our oceans.
Why Are Sharks Hunted?
The single largest factor driving the demand for sharks is for sharks fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Dried seafood traders have existed for generations, and will often the cultural card is played when their practices are challenged. However, shark fin soup is not as old as many would expect, at least not in the popular form found in today’s Chinese restaurants. Originally a dish for the Emperor, shark fin soup was revived during the 1960’s as a luxury addition to wedding banquet menus in hotels, playing on the rich emperor angle to entice the parents of newly-weds show their success and wealth. This then spread across to the corporate world, where the dish is often found at business events.
Video footage has emerged, showing an evil, cruel, and barbaric practice known as finning, where live sharks were hauled aboard fishing vessels and their fins, the only part of value, were hacked off before the still live shark was dumped into the sea to endure a slow and agonising death.
The reason for ‘finning’ was due to offshore fishing vessels (often long-liners) not wanting to fill up their holds with a worthless shark carcass, choosing to remove the only parts that could fetch dollars at market, the fins.
This could only go on for so long before the worlds media caught on and the practice was condemned. Laws have been put in place demanding that sharks are landed with either ‘fins attached’ or specifying a ratio of fins to bodies. Despite widespread introduction of these regulations, the practice continues, largely due to a lack of monitoring and enforcement.
Marketeers behind the shark fin industry have been several moves ahead of the conservationists. They knew that laws would be changed and they would face supply issues once their dirty secret got out. So to entice fishermen to land the whole shark they had to establish markets for the rest of the body. They heavily promoted shark meat, especially in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Australia. In Latin America dishes such as ceviche use the shark meat, whereas in Australia, shark meat is served disguised as fish and chips, deceptively renamed ‘flake.’
Another industry that has sprung up is the shark cartilage industry, pushed in the 1990’s by a William Lane who published a book Shark’s Don’t Get Cancer. Lane toured the western world with his snake oil remedy, appearing on popular TV talk shows encouraging people to consume shark cartilage pills, and that doing so would reduce their chances of getting cancer, and potentially cure cancer.
Lane’s claims have been discredited and no evidence has been found demonstrating any cancer-fighting properties by shark cartilage. His assertions that sharks do not get cancer are false; 23 forms of cancer have been documented in sharks, including chondromas – cartilage cancer. Photographs of sharks with cancer also disprove Lane’s claims. As a result, this industry should have disappeared, and yet it persists.
In an effort to sustain the industry, practitioners have claimed that shark cartilage is good for osteoarthritis, offering relief from pain and inflammation, and improving joint function among other things. The active ingredient, which can be derived from many animal sources, is chondroitin sulfate. Large sample-sized studies of this chemical have found no benefit to this chemical.
Deep water sharks are also being heavily targeted for their liver oil or squalene. A shark’s liver makes up in some species more than 1/3 of its total body weight and is used for buoyancy control in the absence of a swim bladder. Squalene is predominantly used by the cosmetics industry in skin creams and as a health supplement.