Please read the following and relay your thoughts on this important topic...
By Bob Whorton.
Whether we are capable of fully understanding the true plight of the world’s sharks on such a scale that it threatens their very existence is indeed debateable… It is doubtful we do. Even those of us with an inkling would never assume it was happening in our own back yard... Well, here comes a rude awakening.
Westernisation has a lot to answer for, especially when it became blended with easternisation…when an infectious need for greed met with the overwhelming desire for extreme gastronomy.
In the beginning it created a ridiculous demand by the rich, satisfied by a fundamental necessity in the poorer fishing dependant communities around Asia.
We cannot blame those newly touched by the richness of capitalism when it promises a better life to destitute communities, and I would be the last to condemn basic human frailties. However, the truth is that their predicament is exploited just as much as the beasts in question under the badge of commercialism to pacify what can only be described as inhuman demands - As the people of these Eastern countries grew richer on the back of new technology and commerce their dining habits grew richer too. Shark fin soup is regarded a status related food, for most Oriental people only obtained for very special occasions such as weddings. Unfortunately for the shark these special occasions for the Nuevo-Riche have turned into an almost daily treat resulting in full commercialisation and a demonic harvest.
As recently a year ago most non-diving members of the public had never heard of shark finning – The abhorrent practice by which fishermen cut off shark fins and dump their “worthless” living bodies back into the sea. The saddest part of this ongoing story is that these mindless individuals have absolutely no comprehension that they are contributing to the probability of global extinction… just as truthful is this interpretation: The unscrupulous dealers that do know just don’t care.
Today things are slowly beginning to change thanks to organisation like the shark trust. There is greatly increased public awareness of this wasteful, environmentally damaging and cruel practice undertaken solely to meet an international demand for shark fin soup.
There is a growing recognition that it should be stopped, but despite this, it is frustrating to find that many people still perceive shark finning only to be a problem in the Far East and other exotic locations. The east is the biggest consumer of shark fins but the extermination catchments have reached a global scale. Finning is widespread even in Europe, notably in the Spanish Atlantic.
With the exception of only a very few countries where finning is banned (mainly in the USA, Oman and Australia), finning happens every minute of every hour, everyday, all over the world.
This fact was graphically confirmed while Clive James of the Shark Trust was on holiday in Cornwall last summer. Walking on the beach south of Mullion Cove harbour, the first object he noticed lying on the strandline was a pectoral fin cut off a blue shark pup. The live animal would have been just over one metre long when it was caught and finned.
We do not know how a fin from this pup came to be washed up in Cornwall, but finding it began a quest for answers. These are the facts:
NO HIDING PLACE
Each summer female Blue sharks arrive off Western Europe, having migrated across the Atlantic from the USA. This is part of a long-distance journey, which takes these marathon swimmers clockwise around the North Atlantic basin. Large numbers of these migrating Blues have been caught as ‘bycatch’ by swordfish boats operating in mid Atlantic waters for many decades, and would be released because their low value flesh contains high levels of urea which will contaminate other fish with a taint of ammonia and devalue the rest of the catch if stored together. However, this picture has now changed...
Whether boats choose to fin or land whole sharks, the high demand for shark fins continues to threaten the sustainability of shark populations worldwide. The numbers of sharks taken by Spanish boats alone in the last few years is staggering.
Trust supporters, John and Suna Nightingale checked out shark landings in Vigo, Spain, in late summer this year. At the time of their visit, three to four thousand blue sharks were being landed every day and of these, most were less than four feet long. These probably come from the main North Atlantic nursery area off the Portuguese and Spanish coasts. Born at a length of 30-50 cm's, female Blues don’t reach maturity until over two metres long.
Many traditional Atlantic target fish stocks are now severely depleted, and increased international demand for shark fin soup has driven up the value of shark fins. Today swordfish and other valuable ‘whitefish’ are stored in large plastic bags, protecting them from tainting by sharks bodies retained in the same hold. Fins are lightweight, low volume, easy to store and extremely valuable. Sharks are no longer considered a nuisance and cut off the lines (to swim free if still alive); they are now either finned or landed whole – their fins exported to Hong Kong and the lesser meat consumed locally.
HONG KONG -
Hong Kong acts as the centre for trade in both unprocessed and processed fins. Following processing, fins are re-exported all over the world – the shark fins that end up on sale in our local (yes local) restaurants as soup may have originated from almost anywhere in the world.
According the recent FAO data, total shark and ray catches by Spanish fishermen have increased from about 2,000 metric tonnes in 1980, to 14,000 in 1990 and 90,000 in 1998 (representing some six million sharks, close to half of these from the Northeast Atlantic – see figure). These figures do not, however, include sharks that are finned and their bodies discarded. Separate information sourced by the Wildlife Conservation Society in liaison with The Shark Trust confirms that Spain is now supplying 27% of the shark fins imported into Hong Kong. (Hong Kong is now estimated to handle about 50% of all shark fins traded in the world today.) This volume of fins was thought to represent at least ten million sharks per year – most of which are likely to be Blues... but more recent research have proven it much worse.
The Number of Sharks Represented by the Quantity of Fins Traded
Translating the quantities of shark fins imported to Hong Kong into numbers of sharks necessitates several simplifying assumptions, but provides a general estimate of the number of sharks killed to support the fin trade. Assuming that on average:
a) The weight of a shark’s fins represents approximately 2% of its total weight
B) Each shark weighs approximately 15 kg; and
c) Hong Kong represents 50% of the world trade in shark fins,
The 7.6 million kg of fins (reported) imported to Hong Kong in 1999 represents over 50 million sharks needed to support to world shark fin trade each year. Since Europe, primarily Spain, contributes approximately 27% of the Hong Kong trade, if this figure is projected worldwide, over 13 million sharks have their fins taken by European fleets for the shark fin trade each year. Given the trans-shipment and under-reporting issues highlighted above, and the fact that many sharks are killed but not utilized for their fins, the actual number of sharks killed each year must be considerably higher.
Although sharks look, at first sight, like fishes, their reproductive biology is closer to that of the mammals (e.g. dolphins and whales), than bony fishes like cod which can produce millions of eggs each year. Most sharks mature late, have long environmentally variable gestation periods and give birth to only a relatively few large young. This means that sharks are simply unable to withstand high levels of exploitation – as apex predators with few natural enemies they have not evolved an urgency to reproduce and therefore can’t produce enough pups to compensate for the millions now being removed by fisheries. There are many examples of shark fisheries, which have crashed after only a few years of high landings, and recovery may take many decades – if at all. Forty-three species or populations of the roughly 100 sharks and rays assessed last year are listed on the 2000 Red List of Threatened Species (www.redlist.org) as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered with extinction – up from 15 when the List was last published in 1996. The status of another 900-1000 species is still to be assessed…
As the value of fins continues to increase, there is now no hiding place for sharks. The fact that shark fins can be cut off, dried and stored for long periods means that even those shark populations on the remotest reefs in the world are now being visited in the search for shark fins. Local extinctions are almost certainly taking place.
What we can be certain of is that the current estimated take of over 100 million sharks per year is wholly unsustainable. If unchecked, this will result in the elimination of many shark species from many waters.
To quote Shark Trust patron: Actor and diver ‘David Jason’:
“Sharks are magnificent but very vulnerable creatures. Many local populations now face extinction and some species could soon become extinct worldwide. Sharks need our help”.
Man is the only creature in the history of the world that is capable of inflicting extinction and in this particular instance it is both ludicrous and near-sighted.
Ironically the soups regarded as a delicacy by so many oriental experts would be tasteless were it not for the addition of Pork or chicken stock. The ‘nets’ from the shark fin itself provides a glutinous texture to the dish and here is the ironic part: The exact same texture can be reproduced from the jaw sinews or hinge mechanisms from bony fish such as Red Snapper… Fact. However this particular fact doesn’t have the same morbid romance about it as “Shark fin” and the associated dangers in its capture. However, I have thought of a way this can be changed... If all of the fin importers had fish paste smeared around their testicles and encouraged to snorkel around Ras Mohamed during July’s giant snapper mass spawning; opinions might change.
The Shark Trust promotes the study, management and conservation of sharks, skates and rays and is actively campaigning to outlaw the wasteful and cruel practice of shark finning. If you would like to help, please take action by signing the Shark Trust ‘Stop Shark Finning Campaign’ or by joining the Shark Trust or adopting a shark at www.sharktrust.org
This is another reason why the debates & decisions on shark protection and the introduction of National Marine Parks in the Seychelles for example are of “World Importance”. Sharks need our help; mans actions have taken this situation beyond a simple apology, and these marine havens may be the only places left to observe a creature 400 million years in the making...
The Photograph of unborn shark pups was taken at Victoria fish market, Mahe' Seychelles. (C-100 1.3)
Since this article was written the Seychelles Government have banned shark fishing around its national waters: However, a strong Chinese influence will test this to the limit.
Copyright Bob Whorton
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