When we think of a shark feeding frenzy, we think of sharks' voracious appetite for seals, fish, other sharks, and maybe even a human or two. But in fact, sharks are winding up on our dinner table more often than we do on theirs, and we are willing to pay a high price for just a taste.
Right now, a small bowl of shark-fin soup can cost up to $100 in a high-end Hong Kong restaurant. Two pounds of shark fins could set a buyer back just under a grand. In Hawaii, shoppers recently could buy "instant" shark fin, which mostly consisted of much cheaper shark meat and fillers. Even that had a price tag of around $30 for just a 7-ounce serving.
Most of a shark's commercial value is in its fins. Shark finning is currently a multibillion-dollar industry. Ellen Pikitch, an international shark and fisheries expert who is the executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, explained that shark fin soup is "used to celebrate important events" in the Chinese culture. The cartilaginous fins, when dried, form a texture and shape that are just like noodles. According to tradition, the longer the noodle is, the longer the diner's life will be.
Since the soup is thought of as a prestige delicacy, consumption of it has risen along with China's economic growth. Weddings, anniversaries and other occasions often include the soup in a place of honor on menus. Pikitch said that in China the name of the dish translates to "fish fin soup," so many people do not even know about its key ingredient, similar to how Americans might be hard pressed to list the ingredients in many popular deli meats.
The image of revelers feasting at joyous occasions contrasts with the brutal practice of shark finning. Once a shark's fins are cut off, the body — near worthless to many fishermen — is tossed back into the sea. The shark, with no means of mobility, either bleeds to death or is taken by predators. "They are goners as soon as they're finned," said Pikitch. "It's a very cruel and wasteful way to die."
The impact of this practice has hit shark populations hard. Seventy-three million sharks die each year due to finning alone. That does not even include the millions of deaths attributed to fisheries by-catch, environmental problems, intentional hunting for shark meat, leather, tourist souvenirs and more. In killing the sharks, however, humans are hurting themselves.
Ecosystems begin with tight circles that spiral ever outwards, linking more and more individuals with each established connection. Recently, a team of Canadian and American ecologists studied marine ecosystems off the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Surveys show scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks have declined in that region by more than 97 percent. Bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks have suffered even more, with declines of more than 99 percent.
Such drastic reductions are taking their toll on other species, according to the study, which was published in the March 30, 2007, issue of Science. "With fewer sharks around, the species they prey upon — like cownose rays — have increased in numbers, and in turn, hordes of cownose rays dining on bay scallops have wiped the scallops out," said co-author Julia Baum of Dalhousie University. Other bivalves, such as oysters, soft-shell and hard-shell clams, also are disappearing at alarming rates. The losses have put pressure on fishermen and reduced human food supplies. There likely are environmental and human health implications due to the shark population drop, but those have yet to be determined.
Pikitch further mentioned what scientists are observing in the Caribbean. Shark populations there also have suffered steep declines. Sharks normally eat groupers, which are now increasing in number. The groupers eat parrotfish, which feed by scraping algae off of the reefs. "Without enough parrot fish, there is nothing around to keep the reefs clean of algae, which may be leading to dramatic losses of essential habitat for countless species," she said. Biologist Charles Peterson, of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, added, "Despite the vastness of the oceans, its organisms are interconnected, meaning that changes at one level have implications several steps removed."
Public education and improved, as well as better enforced, conservation methods are needed in order to prevent, as Pikitch says, "humans from wiping sharks off the face of the globe." The power is in all of our hands.