This isn’t like one of my usual posts, but in the spirit of Shark Week I want to take the time to write a post about why sharks are amazing creatures and how a practice known as “shark finning” is pushing many shark species toward extinction.
Imagine yourself at the beach with your friends. You and your friends enter the water and are enjoying the warm weather when you see the lifeguard jump up from his seat, yelling and pointing to something in the distance in the water. You turn around and panic. Your heart rate increases, you start to sweat profusely and you freeze as you spot that undeniable dorsal fin protruding from the surface of the water. Your worse fear is confirmed: it’s a shark. Scenes from the movie JAWS flash through your head and you can think of nothing else but how to best exit the water and return safely to shore. For many beach-goers, this is a common fear and may even prevent many people from entering the water at all. Unfortunately, movies like JAWS, extensive media coverage of shark attacks and lack of knowledge about sharks has forced our society into believing that these creatures are savage man-eaters who want nothing more than to tear us limb from limb. Most display no concern when they hear of sharks being killed. Some even encourage the activity, hoping that it will eventually rid the ocean of these “beasts.” This is why not much support is being generated to end a barbaric practice known as shark finning, in which sharks are caught, their fins are sliced off and their bodies are thrown back into the water, left to die a slow, painful death. These fins are being used in different areas of the world mainly for shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in places like China. As a shark enthusiast and an advanced scuba diver who has gone diving several times with sharks, I want to educate you about sharks and why they are not only crucial for the health of our oceans but also why they are magnificent animals that should not automatically strike fear. I am also going to explain the process of shark finning, including why it is cruel, wasteful and serves no purpose in providing nourishment for people anywhere in the world.
Sharks have been on the planet for over 400 million years and have evolved into many forms. There are currently over 440 described species of sharks. They are found all over the world and can be found up to depths of 12,000 feet in the ocean. Of the 440 known sharks, only four are listed as having a high-risk to humans. These include the bull shark, tiger shark, oceanic whitetip shark and well-known great white shark. Though these sharks have been known to result in unprovoked fatalities, all four have been photographed or filmed without the use of a protective cage. The number of deaths per year from sharks is relatively small when compared to the number of deaths from other animals. According to the International Shark Attack File, four fatalities occurred worldwide from sharks in both 2005 and 2006 and the average number of fatalities from 2001-2006 was 4.3. The International Shark Attack File is administered by the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida by the American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s foremost international organization of scientists studying sharks and rays. This number is small when compared to deaths from elephants and tigers, each accounting for about 100 deaths per year. It is statistically more dangerous to drive to the beach than it is to get into the water with a shark. More people are killed each year by lightning, bee stings, dog bites and even by slipping in the bath tub than are killed by sharks. And for every 4 sharks that kill humans each year, humans kill over 100 million sharks.
Once people can better understand sharks and why they are important to our environment, we can hopefully start to reduce the number of sharks killed. If shark populations continue to decrease at such a high rate, the stability of our oceans will be greatly affected. Sharks are integral to the health of our oceans. They have survived 5 great extinctions and are adapted to living in many different parts of the world. However, according to biologist Rob Stewart in his book, Sharkwater, shark populations have declined as much as 90% in the last 30 years. Because sharks produce very few offspring and reach sexual maturity at a late age, it will be difficult for them to rise in numbers again. As apex, or top, predators they are crucial in controlling the population of other species. Without them, skates, rays and other small predators that sharks feed on would explode in numbers. With a rise in rays and skates, the number of prey such as shellfish, would become depleted. This would largely affect humans as many families around the world rely on shellfish to feed their families. In addition, the population of phytoplankton in the ocean would become greatly reduced. Phytoplankton provides 70% of the oxygen we breathe and consumes more carbon dioxide – the global warming gas – than anything else on earth, according to Rob Stewart again in his book Sharkwater. By destroying sharks, we are causing a cascade of negative events that could ultimately affect our own lives.
The leading cause of death for sharks throughout the world is through the process of shark finning. This practice involves the removal of the fins from the shark with a metal blade. Fishermen will catch live sharks, remove their fins, and release the finless animals back into the ocean. The sharks, unable to move through the water, soon die from suffocation or predators. The fins are commonly used for shark fin soup, mainly as a status symbol in parts of Asia. The soup is typically served at weddings, banquets and business dinners. The fin itself is both tasteless and odorless and therefore other foods must be added to the soup for flavor. In addition, it provides little nutritional value. Shark finning has increased dramatically in recent years due to higher demand for shark fins, increased fishing technology and changing economics of transporting fish products according to a 2003 article by Susie Watts of WildAid titled “Shark Finning: Unrecorded Wastage on a Global Scale.” Because shark meat is considered inferior to that of most other fish, profits to be made from the meat are much lower than from the fins. Fins sell for about $300 a pound on average and a bowl of the soup can cost up to $200. Shark meat, however, only sells for about 50 cents per pound. Due to both limited storage space on boats and the increasing value of fins, fisherman have found an economic advantage to discard of the shark bodies and leave only room onboard for fins. This wastes about 95% of the animal, of which most could be used as meat to feed people throughout the world. Luckily, sharks are becoming worth more alive than dead. According to BBC journalist and veteran diver, John McIntyre in his 2006 book “Sharks: Savage Predators of the Oceans,” it is estimated that a single live shark can have a value of $100,000 to a local economy generated by ecotourism. There are over 200 shark dive-sites in the world and shark feeding sites are now in high demand from divers, such as myself, who want to observe these wonderful creatures in their natural environment.
Hopefully, more people will begin to appreciate sharks and their role in the oceans. Because of the demand for their fins, many species of sharks may be pushed toward extinction. The popular hammerhead shark and the infamous great white are both currently listed as endangered, along with 37 other species of sharks. I hopefully have convinced you that sharks are important members of the ocean and should not be viewed as killing machines. In addition, I hope I have opened your eyes to the inhumane and wasteful industry of shark finning. So next time you make a trip to the beach, consider yourself lucky if you happen to spot a shark in the distance as the chances of seeing them are becoming increasingly slim.