In spite of their sharp teeth and vicious reputations, sharks now have more to fear from us than we do from them. Man is killing over 70 million sharks every year and driving them to the brink of extinction. And it's mainly to supply the key ingredient for one dish - shark fin soup. It's an expensive dish produced all Asia and sold in Chinese restaurants around the world, even in the UK. Sue Todd reports.
Sharks are rarely caught for their meat - only their lucrative fins, which sell for up to £200 per kilo. In order to maximise profits, fishermen remove fins from a shark at sea and then throw its body back into the water. This way the bulky, unprofitable body does not take up valuable cargo space on board. Often still alive, the mutilated shark is unable to swim and slowly sinks to the bottom of the sea where it bleeds to death, drowns, or is eaten by other predators. Shark finning is widespread and is unmanaged, unmonitored and illegal in many seas. Fins are usually dried or frozen to be transported to the Asian markets - dominated by Hong Kong, followed by Taiwan and Singapore.
Shark fin soup
Shark fin soup has been eaten in China for centuries and was traditionally a special celebratory dish that was eaten rarely. In Communist times it was frowned upon for being decadent. The shark fins are slow cooked until the fin separates into needles of cartilage that look like clear noodles. This gelatinous delicacy ironically carries no actual taste of shark but tastes of the broth it is cooked in.
In modern China and across Asia the rising numbers of wealthy middle classes consider this elite dish a status symbol. With all its traditional associations with wealth and health, shark fin soup is now a must-have at weddings, business dinners and banquets. In the last 15 years numbers of sharks killed for their fins has escalated to up to 70 million per year and a number of shark populations have fallen by over 90%. Forty per cent of shark species are threatened with extinction and twenty species are critically endangered.
Sharks are particularly vulnerable to over-fishing because they mature slowly and have few young and so can’t recover their numbers fast enough. They are also critically important for healthy oceans.
Sharks are apex predators sitting at the top of the marine food chain and they play a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance of the eco-system. Without them other species can start to dominate causing problems all along the chain. In waters where shark have almost been eliminated there have been reports of reductions in shellfish and water quality as well as an increase in algae. The demand for shark fins in Asia is spreading finning and the resultant eco-disaster across the world.
Better laws and more enforcement needed
There is no international ban on shark finning, but patchy laws and varying enforcement. Environmental campaigners have been working hard to raise awareness of the environmental impact of eating shark fin and have encouraged the tightening of finning laws.
A third of European sharks are threatened with extinction and the EU banned shark finning in 2003. The regulation has long been criticised though for being full of loopholes. In December 2010 the EU Parliament gave its support to strengthening the ban, a crucial step in the process of changing the law to only allow shark fins to be landed when they are attached to the shark. See Global Ocean's petition to find out more and add your support to the campaign.
The illicit trading is a dark affair and difficult to tackle. After being seen to be prying into a shark fin operation when filming in Costa Rica, Gordon Ramsay was threatened and doused in petrol. The Costa Rican police later advised Ramsay and his crew to leave the country.
End of the line
"With three to four times more shark fins passing through the Hong Kong shark fin market than can be accounted for by FAO fisheries statistics it is clear that despite many countries adopting finning bans - finning activities are still rife," said Ali Hood, Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust. "To prevent abuse of any finning ban the simplest option is to land sharks with their fins naturally attached."
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