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I try to keep entries in this series upbeat whenever possible, but this diary could get a bit ugly. However, this topic is too important to ignore. Shark finning, as the term suggests, is the deplorable practice of capturing sharks and slicing off their fins. The shark is often alive during this procedure and the rest of the fish is simply tossed back into the sea. A finless shark sinks to the ocean bottom where the animal slowly dies.

Not all of these sharks are finned alive. Many that are sold are brought on board already dead, either as by-catch while looking for more valuable species, such as tuna or swordfish, or found dead in gill nets (still, drowning in one of these fish traps is a pretty horrible way to go). For those boats that practice this often illegal method of fishing, the main carcass is still tossed overboard. Either the flesh of the shark isn’t worth the limited freezer space available on the boat, or it's a way of discarding the evidence in case the vessel is boarded, since piles of the thin fins are much easier to keep hidden than the entire sharks are.

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A huge pile of shark fins on board
a fishing trawler.

Sharks are used commercially for mainly one reason: to provide a handful of Asian countries, especially China, with a steady supply of shark fins to be used in shark fin soup. This is an ancient recipe that dates back to the fourth century B.C.E. It was a dish reserved for royalty and the very wealthy, but in the 1980’s the Chinese government began a campaign to remove the stigma of eating this soup as being "elitist". Since then it has become a common part of meals served in many of that country’s restaurants. It is now an expected dish to be served at most wedding receptions.

Preparing shark fin soup is a simple, but lengthy, process. Shark fins are made of cartilage, which although high in protein, offers very little nutritional value. The fins are dried and stripped of the skin, then boiled for up to six hours to tenderize the tough fibers. The softened flesh is then sliced up to resemble cooked noodles. The fins also have no taste. Like with tofu, the processed fins are cooked with other ingredients in order to absorb their flavors. Traditionally it is boiled in chicken stock flavored with ham, chicken breasts, green onions and shitake mushrooms.

Substitutes for shark fin aren’t an option since the key component of a shark’s fin is cartilage, something bony (non-cartilaginous) fish’s fins do not contain, although there is a fake version of this soup sold in cans. This imitation cartilage is made from processed mung beans. You can usually tell the artificial brands since they sell for less than two bucks a can. Real shark fin soup can fetch up to $100 per bowl.

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No MSG!

When Disney Corp. opened their Hong Kong theme park, shark fin soup was planned as a standard course in their wedding banquets. Disney defended this action by claiming that all of their sharks come from sustainable fisheries practices. Problem is, sustainable shark fishing doesn’t exist. Disney backed down within weeks of an international outcry aimed at stopping this dish from being served in their hotels.

Basic shark biology shows why sustainable shark fishing is impossible. Compared with other species of fish, sharks mature slowly, have very small broods and some require gestation periods of nearly two years. Regardless of species, sharks simply cannot replace themselves fast enough to compensate for their harvesting. Of the nearly 400 shark species that exists today, only one hasn’t had its population reduced by at least fifty percent. For some, like white-tip sharks, they have declined by over 95%, in large part due to both legal and illegal finning practices. This isn’t hyperbole, sharks are in very big trouble. And when you mess with an apex species, those animals that exist at the very top of their food chain, the effects are felt throughout the ecosystem.

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It’s amazing that such a niche market can cause the death of so many of these fish. Up to 100 million sharks are killed each year worldwide, with roughly half of these solely to have their fins removed for this soup. And there isn’t any specific species that is preferred over others. Any shark will do since all sharks have fins made up of the same cartilaginous compounds. Although regulations on shark killing is pretty poor overall, CITES (The Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species) only lists three species as being banned in international trade, and even these species are not spared. These three fish include the great white, the basking shark and whale sharks. As you can see in the photo below, even the whale shark will be readily slaughtered for its fins.

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Like any product, shark fins have their consumers and their suppliers. As mentioned, the consumers are mainly concentrated in China and Hong Kong, although Singapore is also a major fin importer. The supplies have come from all over the world, but the largest are currently from Indonesia and Spain. The U.S. was a major culprit in shark fin exporting until 1993 when the practice was banned in our waters. Although great news at the time, this action simply transfered the fishery to the Pacific outside of our 200 mile jurisdiction, where the shark finning industry has exploded. A few years ago the U.S. laws were strengthened to ban any ship, regardless of origin, from possessing shark fins (unless they were attached to the rest of the carcass) in our waters, as well as banning American ships from carrying fins anywhere in the world.

In 2004, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a group that is comprised of 60 countries in North and South America, Europe and Australia, banned shark finning in the Atlantic. Although this does nothing for the huge number of catches in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, this is a very good start to protecting sharks worldwide.

Of course, like with any banned product with a high market value (hello, DEA), enforcement is a major problem. When a single basking shark or whale shark fin can net poor fisherman a clean five grand, there will be plenty of people willing to risk prosecution.

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Thousands of shark fins drying
on racks in Hong Kong.

Even as the plight of sharks has gained international attention, and in some cases condemnation of shark fin consumers (NBA star Yao Ming has publicly renounced eating shark fin soup), like with the Asian consumption of many other threatened or endangered wildlife, the practice is often justified by claims of health benefits (see my diary on seahorses). The irony here is that shark fins are anything but healthy food. Being apex predators, sharks are prime targets of mercury bioconcentration. Mercury is a pollutant and a powerful toxin that starts out low in the food chain. With each level of predation the concentration of the substance is increased in the flesh of the predator. Animals lower on the food chain have less mercury than those near the top. And you don’t get much more toppier than sharks. Add to this that mercury happens to be collected in cartilage rather than the flesh and you get toxin levels found in shark fins that are up to seven times higher than levels allowed by the FDA.

You can sign a petition to end shark finning here.

Other diaries in this series can be found here.

For those of you who caught Wednesday’s diary about the impending death of Violet the Octopus from old age, she died this morning.

Originally posted to Mark H on Fri Jul 27, 2007 at 04:02 PM PDT.

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