Many of the world's shark populations are destined for collapse, the experts say, if the current overfishing in many parts of the world continues. Sharks, they fear, are likely to be in the first round of marine extinctions caused by man. Despite their fierce appearance, sharks are considered vulnerable owing to their longevity, late maturity and slow reproduction rates. Some populations are believed to have been reduced by 90%. More than 800,000 tons of shark were officially reported as caught in 1998, while a similar amount is thought to go unreported.
Fueling the frantic pursuit today is the growing consumer preferencein Chinese communities in Europe and around the worldfor shark fin soup. And with that demand comes a practice known as finning, in which only a shark's lucrative fins are taken by fishermen. The animal is then thrown back into the sea, to drown or bleed to death.
"There has been a massive expansion of demand for one specific body part of a slow-reproducing animal," says Susie Watts, the principal author of "The End of the Line?", a new report by the international conservation organization WildAid. "The number of consumers who can afford, or have access to shark fin, has risen from a few million in the '80s to more than 300 million today." The resourcemuch as with ivory, tiger bone and rhino horncannot sustain this level of exploitation, WildAid says.
As the reportbased on two years of research in Africa, Asia and the Americaslands on the desks of policymakers and campaigners, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Committee on Fisheries is gathering in Rome this week to review member nations' activities, including implementation of an "international plan of action" for the conservation and management of sharks. Indications are that the F.A.O. is sorely disappointed that so few countries have yet initiated national plans to ensure sustainable fisheries.
While backing the F.A.O.'s efforts, WildAid seeks an immediate moratorium on finning, plus robust efforts to reduce consumption and demand for shark fins. It is also calling on the European Union to follow the example of the U.S., which banned finning in its waters last December.
"We don't think that banning the soup is the answer," says Peter Knights, WildAid's executive director. "This isn't a question of stopping a tradition. It may even be a question of keeping a tradition going." What's needed, he says, is "a huge increase in consumer awareness," particularly among Asians. To that end, WildAid has enlisted the support of political and entertainment figuresinclude the martial-arts film actor Jackie Chanto try to alter attitudes toward a dish that dates back several centuries, to China's Ming dynasty. Once enjoyed only by the very privileged, the soup is now mass-produced.
"The shark fin trade has more than doubled in the last 15 years," says Knights. "With the growing middle class in China and growing affluence, there's a huge new market," with the dish served increasingly at weddings, business dinners and at the new year. (It used to be served in the first-class sections of Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines planes, too, but has been taken off the menu after passengers and conservationists expressed concern.) Selling in some restaurants for up to $100 a bowl, the soup is expensive both because of the high demand for shark fins and the long preparation time involved. Fins, which are said to add to the dish's texture, are cleaned and dried, then boiled for hours to rid them of their pungent smell, while the flavor of the broth usually comes from chicken or abalone.
Victor Wu, a WildAid shark campaigner in Singapore, stopped eating shark fin soup about 12 years ago, after learning about finning. Young Chinese, he says, are taught that the three greatest gifts from the sea are abalone, sea cucumber and sharks' fins. But, he says, "If there is no shark, there is no shark fin. And if there is no shark fin, there is no shark fin soup." As Asian culinary tradition meets Western-style consumerism, sharks are increasingly being caught in the middle.
For more information, go to:
The International Shark Attack File (www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/ISAF/ISAF.htm)
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/003/X9187E.htm)
Trafficmonitoring program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) (www.traffic.org/factfile/factfile_sharks.html)