Taking shark fins off the menu

| 1st November 2012
shark fins
the magnificent sharks that these fins once belonged to are now carcasses at the bottom of the ocean

The magnificent sharks that these fins once belonged to are now carcasses at the bottom of the ocean.

With around 73 million sharks being killed each year for their fins alone, Anna Taylor reports on how a growing number of enlightened countries are now banning this brutal practice.
There is no hidden reserve of sharks and they are disappearing fast

Last month in Cambridge, volunteers from the community group Fin Free Cambridge delivered a petition with over three and a half thousand signatures to the Guildhall. The group, and all the signatories, are hoping to make Cambridge the first UK city to ban the use of shark fins. Currently four businesses in Cambridge use shark fins and the UK is ranked 19th in the world for shark fin exports.

Shark finning is a cruel and wasteful activity, with around 73 million sharks being killed each year for their fins alone. The number of threatened shark species in the world has grown to more than 180 from a total of just 15 in 1996. Dr Ralf Sonntag, Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Germany, says: “Shark finning is not only a huge conservation issue it is also against all international standards of animal welfare because many sharks are alive when they are thrown overboard with their fins cut off.” 

Sharks cannot withstand the high level of fishing that they are experiencing, due to their slow growth rates and the length of time it takes for them to reach sexual maturity (12-14 years for a female Great White Shark, for example). When they are mature, they have relatively few offspring, so population recovery is slow. “There is no hidden reserve of sharks and they are disappearing fast. Most sharks have an exceptionally limited biological productivity and can therefore be overfished even at very low levels of fishing mortality,” says Dr Sonntag.

The petition in Cambridge follows international activity over the past two years that has seen every single country in the Americas officially ban shark finning. In June, Venezuela was the last country to do so, at the same time as establishing a shark sanctuary covering 1,440 square miles (3,730 sq km) in the Caribbean Sea, and protecting Los Roques, an area 80 miles off the coast that provides crucial breeding and nursery grounds for Lemon Sharks and Caribbean Reef Sharks among many others.

Venezuela joins only a handful of other countries to have established a shark sanctuary; others include The Bahamas, Tokelau, The Marshall Islands, The Maldives, Palau and Honduras. These countries have all realised that a living shark is worth much more to their economy than a dead one. Recent research, for example, valued just one Reef Shark off Palau, an island in the Pacific Ocean, to be $1.9 million over its lifetime, and shark tourism brings the island roughly $18 million each year.

The shark sanctuary in Honduras also aims to generate tourism revenue, attracting divers to see dozens of species such as hammerheads and oceanic white-tip sharks. The country’s entire 92,665-mile (149,130 km) exclusive economic zone is now off limits to shark fishing, covering both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The sanctuary was established last year at the same time as the country banned shark finning and the trade in their parts or derivatives. 

There is no hidden reserve of sharks and they are disappearing fast

In a ceremony in June this year, President Porfirio Lobo Sosa joined law enforcement officials and the local press to watch the burning of illegal shark fins, marking one year since the ban and creation of the sanctuary and underscoring his country’s commitment to protecting sharks. Over one hundred pounds of fins that had been confiscated by the Honduran navy were burned, an amount that would have fetched around $300 per pound on the open market.

Earlier this month Costa Rica, a country highly regarded for its environmental protection, also held a ceremony featuring their President, Laura Chinchilla. Although shark finning became illegal in 2001, the President signed an executive order that closed loopholes which had previously still allowed the transportation and importation of shark fins from other countries. It is estimated that in 2011, up to 400,000 sharks were killed in Costa Rica for their fins, but now anyone caught finning sharks will be subject to fines and the cancellation of their fishing licence in an effort to show “zero tolerance for shark finning.”Catching sharks for subsistence food will continue to be allowed. 

Even states in the USA have now passed legislation that has banned shark finning. The most recent was Illinois in June this year, joining Hawaii, Guam, Washington State, Oregon and California. The latter three means that all Pacific ports in the USA have now been closed off to the shark fin trade.

Shark finning is fuelled by the growing demand for fins in the Far East, where they are used to make shark fin soup. Consumption of the soup dates back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), but was popularised during the Ming Dynasty of the 15th Century, favoured by emperors because of its rarity. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, shark fin soup was frowned upon, but has become popular once again over the past two decades. It is eaten at weddings, business lunches and corporate celebrations as a show of wealth, and a demonstration of the host’s good fortune. 

Increased prosperity in countries such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the biggest consumers of shark fin soup, has meant that millions more people can now afford to buy the soup, priced at up to $100 a bowl. It is thought to contain medicinal properties that can improve kidneys, lungs and bones, but in reality there is no evidence to support this. In fact, the soup has such a  high mercury content that it has been deemed unsafe to eat. It also has very little flavour, being added to the soup simply to add texture.

However, in July this year, China’s State Council announced that it is to ban shark fin soup from all government banquets and functions. Also, in Hong Kong several restaurants have taken shark fin soup off the menu in response to public feeling. Around the world, awareness of the shark fin trade and its impact on shark populations is increasing, but with so many sharks facing extinction, time is running out.

Anna Taylor is a freelance journalist.

Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com



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