Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Shark finning: A soup story

It all started a long time ago with a bowl of soup. Not just any soup of course, but a two thousand year old Chinese delicacy, served at special occasions like wedding feasts, birthday parties and festive banquets. Not because of its exquisite flavor or exceptional nutritional value, but as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. In other words, a status symbol soup, where the size of its tasteless but pricey main ingredient matters a lot indeed. For the bigger it is, the more money the host must have dished out. You see, shark fin soup is all about prestige. Not about good taste.



While demand for this cartilaginous broth supposedly has dropped in Hong Kong, until a few years ago the main trade market in shark fins, it is now exploding in economically booming China. Since time immemorial a very popular place, a lot of its new middle-class mouths are now demanding some symbolic respect in the form of a bowl of soup.

With single fins going for 100 USD or more (up to 15000 USD for whale shark fins!) and bowls of shark fin soup costing up to 200 USD in up-scale restaurants all over the world, fin business is an extremely lucrative trade, valued at a couple of billion USD. And, just as China's wealthy class, business is growing.

The demand for shark fins is already such that finning is going on everywhere. Ruthlessly. Excessively. Out of control.

• Not just in Asian waters. But in every sea and ocean on this wet planet of ours. The blue shark, whose fins are first choice according to the FAO, is the world's most abundant and heavily fished pelagic shark. Still, despite a decline in population of more than half in the North Atlantic, it is only classified as near threatened. As long as there's money to be made, mercy is not an option.

• Not just in unregulated international waters but also illegally in supposedly protected national marine parks like the Galapagos (Ecuador) and Cocos (Costa Rica), to name but just two.

• Not just by Asian fleets (from China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, etc), but also by European (from Spain, Norway, UK, etc) and American fleets (from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, USA, Mexico, etc) among others (from Australia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Fiji, etc). In short, everybody's having a feeding-frenzy in the same bowl. As long as it lasts. The EU for example supplies 27% of all fins imported into Hong Kong.

Entire fishing fleets are out there to catch any sharks they can, slice off their fins and throw the now helpless fish back into the water to drown. Brutal but efficient. Time is money. And so is storage space. At up to 700 USD/kg for the fins, it's not worth it to keep the carcasses for their low value meat.

Highest on the hit list are blue sharks, hammerheads, silky sharks and thresher sharks. But of course any other sharks will do too, whether coastal or pelagic, endangered or not. There's no discrimination in this chop-chop business.

Even worse, these I'm-just-making-a-living people don't just catch mature animals but also young ones, thus preventing already depleted populations to recover. A slow process at best, as most shark species mature late and reproduce slowly. Not surprisingly, over the last 15 years many shark populations have declined by 70 to 90%. In other words, systematic extermination. Just because some of us are having a celebration and absolutely need to impress the guests.

For some shark species the economical situation's bad enough, for them to have been officially classified as bankrupt endangered by CITES: the basking-, whale-, and great white shark for example are finning against time. In reality, all are threatened. After having survived for over 400 million years.



A fairly recent report, based on six year old data, by Imperial College London researchers, states that the number of sharks being killed to satisfy the increasing hunger for shark fin soup is three to four times higher than previously thought and that some shark species are at serious risk. If that isn't a wonderful example of British understatement I don't know what is.

According to their independent estimates of annually traded shark fins, between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed each year. A lot more than what is being reported to the FAO - who previously naively estimated that only about ten million sharks were harvested each year. But then, most fishing is unregulated, uncontrolled and unreported. So how would they know?

These new numbers are based on fins traded at Hong Kong auctions, where an estimated 50% of all the fins are sold. These numbers do not take into account all catches. Who knows how many more sharks (1) fall victim of unwanted unrecorded by-catch by fleets targeting other species, (2) are sold on black markets - dealing in endangered species among others, (3) are being killed just for sport by assholes trophy hunters collecting jaws, (4) are actually caught for their meat and consumed locally or (5) are used for natural medicines.

Which is why some conservationists claim the number of sharks slaughtered every year is more likely to be as high as 150 million.



These are of course all just numbers. Guesses that, as soon as they're published, always are rejected or discredited by some lobby organization or other. Whether because they're too low or too high.

But while they argue about estimated numbers, the actual number of living sharks is decreasing every bloody day. Everywhere, sharks are disappearing from otherwise vibrant reefs and have become a rare sight at best in many places.

So... whenever you do see a shark, please don't kill it if it's still alive and don't eat it if it's alas already dead.

Thanks, TM

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