Having evolved to perfection over millions of years, the shark is now on the brink of extinction no thanks to indiscriminate harvesting of its fins. Despite its terrifying reputation, this creature is under serious threat and may be totally wiped out if the citizens of Earth do not stand up and say that they are “FINished with Fins!”
Words: Shark Savers Malaysia
Earth has experienced many catastrophic events that have resulted in five mass extinctions of life forms that were unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Yet, sharks evolved around 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs walked the Earth. They have not only survived, but thrived. Some sharks evolved to perfection 150 million years ago and have changed little since, while humans have only been around for two million years. We are still learning about these amazing animals and discovering more species, and so can only estimate the existence of about 500 shark species. These range from the largest fish in the oceans, the whale shark that feeds on plankton, to the tiny deep water dwelling dwarf lantern shark that’s only about 20cm long. Most sharks are actually smaller than humans.
The word ‘shark’ conjures images of a sleek, streamlined creature built for speed and maneuverability, and while this is the case for many pelagic (open ocean) species, other bottom dwellers are flat and even ‘weedy’ looking for camouflage.
Instead of bones, a shark’s skeleton is made of cartilage, making them light and flexible. Rather than having a swim bladder like those found in bony fishes, sharks have high levels of oil in their liver to control buoyancy. Their body is covered in tiny, tooth-like denticles coated in enamel, giving protection and aiding water flow. Sharks continually produce and shed teeth throughout their lifetime.
In addition to the five senses, sharks have a lateral line that detects movement and vibration through even minute pressure changes. They also have an electro-sensory system that detects electrical fields present in animals. Hammerhead sharks are thought to be some of the most electrically sensitive animals on the planet, and they are able to scan the seabed to find buried invertebrates. This sense also aids with navigation and migration, as it can detect the Earth’s magnetic field.
SURVIVAL OF MARINE ECOSYSTEMS
Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems; they keep fish populations healthy by removing the sick, injured and weak. Their presence influences the behaviour of other species; for example, sharks help prevent overgrazing of sea grass meadows because fish alter their grazing patterns frequently to avoid predators. Therefore, no patches of sea grass are overeaten. Without predators, fish will overgraze one area of sea grass, and then, move on to the next, eventually destroying sea grass beds.
Removing sharks through overfishing has repercussions throughout the complex food webs. In the mid-Atlantic Ocean, overfishing sharks has led to the collapse of scallop businesses. This happened when, without sharks to prey on them, the cow nose ray population increased and wiped out the scallops. Similarly, in the Caribbean, coral reefs were found to decline due to groupers eating too many of the herbivorous fish, leading to algae smothering the reef. Sharks normally keep the grouper populations in check.
It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans. Huge numbers are caught as by-catch. For example, when the target fish is tuna, sharks get caught even though not intended for consumption. Though some by-catch is unintentional, the number of sharks caught is higher than necessary. Longline fishing, with thousands of hooks stretched across a line in the ocean up to 150kms long, kills many marine species including turtles and sea birds. About half of the catch can be sharks, though sharks are not primarily targeted for meat. Instead, the oil from the liver is used in cosmetics and health supplements, but often the main reason is the fins.
The price obtained for fins has led to the practice of ‘shark finning’. This is when the sharks’ valuable fins are sliced off, mostly while the shark is still alive. The body, which has little monetary value, is thrown back into the sea. Apart from the cruelty involved in keeping just the fins, which amounts to three to five per cent of the body weight of the animal, discarding the rest is a shocking waste.
FINS IN MY SOUP
So, how did we get to this despicable state? The answer is a seemingly innocent dish called shark fin soup. It started as a delicacy eaten by Ming Dynasty emperors and their courtiers in China. Shark fin soup exploded in popularity in the 1990s with the economic boom of the four Asian Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. As wealth grew, so did the desire for a luxurious dish to be served at business banquets and social occasions. Because it was expensive, the dish was seen as a way to honour guests.
Despite their reputation as a luxury item, shark fins are actually tasteless. The delicately seasoned broth in which the fins are cooked gives shark fin soup its taste. Additionally, its nutritional benefits are nonexistent! Even though shark cartilage is believed to help reduce joint ache, the US Food and Drug Administration has found no positive health impacts. In fact, studies on fins show the presence of toxic chemicals such as mercury and arsenic. A Florida study found high levels of the neurotoxin BMAA in shark fins. These toxins can cause birth defects, contribute to learning disabilities, affect fertility and contribute to neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and many other health advisory boards advise against eating shark.
These sobering facts should make us question why shark fins end up in our soup bowls. Do we want to expose ourselves to harmful chemicals? Do we continue teaching our children to follow tradition while disregarding ecological and even health consequences?
As shark fin soup gained popularity, the demand for fins grew exponentially, and higher and higher numbers of sharks were caught. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), pelagic (oceanic) sharks have declined by up to 70 per cent in the American northwest and western central Atlantic regions between 1992 and 2000 (based on long-line fishing logbooks). Hammerhead sharks in the northwest and central Atlantic Ocean declined by 89 per cent between 1986 and 2004. The IUCN considers one-third of pelagic sharks as threatened with the risk of extinction. Collecting accurate data on populations is difficult with ocean dwelling animals, but scientists, divers, fishermen and fin traders have all noticed a drop in the number and size of sharks seen both underwater and in markets. Official figures tend to be grossly underreported due to illegal, unreported and underreported (IUU) fishing. In reality, the situation could be much worse.
Following lobbying by scientists and conservationists in 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) added oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and hammerhead sharks to Appendix II, which means that their export and import is highly restricted (formerly applicable to whales, great white and basking sharks). However, implementing protection through effective enforcement is a huge challenge when the trade is financially lucrative. Even protected areas have a limited effect as many species are migratory and will stray into areas where they can be easily fished.
Historically, people have always seen the sea as an endless bounty of food, and most are unaware of the reproductive limitations of sharks. Sharks, unlike most other fish, do not reproduce in huge numbers. Until now, the lack of animals preying on sharks made it unnecessary. Like mammals, they invest a lot of time and energy in fewer, highly developed offspring. Some sharks only reach maturity after more than 10 years; they tend to have long gestation periods, take breaks between pregnancies, and some species give birth to only one or two pups.
It is just not possible for shark populations to recover from this unsustainable onslaught, and many species now face extinction. We can only guess at the impact this will have on marine ecosystems and the health of the oceans that we rely on for our survival. Sharks have evolved so perfectly and survived for millennia. It would be a terrible tragedy for their extinction to be brought about by human greed.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Many studies have shown that sharks are actually worth a lot more alive than dead because scuba diving with sharks has become increasingly popular. A live shark will continue to bring revenue to local communities in the tourism industry. A study published in Biological Conservation estimated the lifetime value of a reef shark in Palau at nearly USD2 million, versus only USD108 for sale in a fish market.
By raising awareness about the importance of sharks and the danger of extinction, Shark Savers is enabling consumers to make informed choices. The ‘I’m Finished with Fins’ campaign uses public figures as role models, making it socially acceptable to say ‘No’ to shark fin soup. If we can reduce the demand for fins, we have a chance at saving sharks and ensuring the health of our oceans for future generations. Already the campaign is making waves with many hotels, businesses and members of the public pledging that they are FINished with Fins.
Internationally renowned individuals like Sir Richard Branson and Jeremy Lin are lending their names to the cause. Corporations like AirAsia, Berjaya, and Shaw Group have all become fin-free. Celebrities like Hong Kong’s G.E.M., Singapore’s Hossan Leong, Malaysia’s Patrick Teoh, Taiwan’s Tanya Chua and China’s Jackie Chan have all pledged to be FINished with Fins. It is high time you did too! finishedwithfins.org
Shark Savers is an international non-profit marine conservation organisation dedicated to saving depleting shark populations worldwide. Shark Savers launched its ‘I’m FINished with Fins’ campaign in Asia in 2012, aimed at educating the public on the importance of shark conservation through grassroots campaigns, motivating people to stop consuming shark fin soup, working for the creation of shark sanctuaries and, improved regulations. The organisation believes that each individual pledge will collectively make a global difference in reducing overall demand for shark fins. Pledges are collected online at www.finishedwithfins.org www.facebook.com/FinishedWithFins.
What happens when a shark sees a human? In many cases, they are either curious or frightened. However, sometimes when the sun beams down and a shark looks up at a swimming human, it sees a silhouette that looks like a turtle or seal. When the shark takes a taste and discovers that it hasn’t sampled its normal prey, it swims away. In most cases, the human may be injured but recovers with medical help. This type of encounter happens mostly only with great white, tiger or bull sharks, three shark species out of over 500 types of sharks! On average, five people are killed yearly worldwide by sharks. That’s fewer than people dying from having coconuts fall on their heads or being struck by lightning!
There are up to 500 different types of sharks. Test your shark knowledge!
1. THE WHALE SHARK IS THE LARGEST SHARK. HOW BIG CAN IT GROW?
(a) 2.46 metres (the height of the tallest living person) (b) 6 metres (the height of a giraffe) (c) 12.2 metres (the length of a city bus)
2. THE SMALLEST SHARK IS ONLY 20 CENTIMETRES LONG. WHAT IS IT CALLED?
(a) epaulette shark (b) dwarf lantern shark (c) carpet shark
3. WHY DOES A HAMMERHEAD SHARK’S HEAD LOOK SO STRANGE?
(a) the placement of their eyes gives 360° vision (b) their head shape helps them swim faster (c) they can use their heads to hit their prey
4. WHERE IS A SHARK’S HEART LOCATED?
(a) in its chest (b) immediately in front of its tail (c) in its head
5. HOW MANY TEETH DOES A GREAT WHITE SHARK GO THROUGH IN ITS LIFETIME?
(a) 3,000 (b) 30,000 (c) 300,000
6. WHY DOES THE THRESHER SHARK HAVE SUCH A HUGE TAIL?
(a) to stun its prey so they are easier to catch (b) to swim faster (c) to send electrical signals to other fish
Q1: C. The largest recorded whale shark is 12.2 metres, but some scientists believe it may grow even larger.
Q2: B. Dwarf lantern shark. They have bioluminescent organs that help them camouflage by mimicking sunlight shining down from above.
Q3: A. hammerhead’s strange eyes allow it to accurately see what is happening all around.
Q4: C. A shark’s heart has two chambers and is located in its head. Because sharks have low blood pressure, they must swim continuously to keep their blood circulating.
Q5: B. Great white sharks are constantly losing their teeth and re-growing new ones. Some scientists estimate they go through 30,000 teeth in their lifetimes.
Q6: A. Thresher sharks use their large tails to hit and stun other fish, which makes the fish easier to catch and eat.
THE GLOBAL SHARK POPULATION
How many sharks are there? The simple answer is that we just don’t know because the oceans are vast, and many shark species are migratory. So, counting the number of sharks is difficult! Then, how do we know that many shark species are endangered? We can base our guesses on comparisons between previous sightings or catches. For example, in the Gulf of Mexico between the 1950s and 1990s, there was an estimated 98 per cent decline in oceanic whitetip numbers, according to US longline fishing data. Some shark species are listed as data deficient, which means we don’t know if they are endangered. The frog shark, which lives in deep waters, is data deficient because less than a dozen specimens have been caught. We simply don’t know how many of them exist and how common they are.
SIMPLE STEPS ON HOW THE PUBLIC CAN HELP IN SAVING SHARKS
- Avoid consuming shark products.
- Don’t serve shark fin soup at banquets or weddings, and when you RSVP to wedding invitations, request not to be served shark fin soup.
- Encourage your friends, family and coworkers to take the pledge.
- Urge your company to pledge not to serve shark fin soup.
- Support shark sanctuaries and legislation that protects sharks.
- Dive with sharks and support ecotourism businesses that allow locals to earn a sustainable living, instead of fishing for sharks.
- Sign up for SharksCount if you’re amdiver and help track shark populations. Go to www.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/sharkscount/ for more details.
- In Singapore, request a Shark 101 presentation at your child’s school by emailing email@example.com, www.sharksavers.org, www.finishedwithfins.org.
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