It is estimated that 38 million sharks are killed every year just for their fins.
According to Wikipedia, Shark fin soup dates back to Ming Dynasty China and is considered by Chinese as one of the eight treasured foods from the sea. The popularity of shark fin soup rose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as standards of living began to improve. The delicacy was coveted by emperors because it was rare, delicious, and required elaborate preparation. Holding both culinary and symbolic significance, the dish is now popular at important occasions such as weddings, banquets, and important business deals. It symbolizes wealth, power, prestige and honour. This staple of gourmet Chinese cuisine is a show of respect, honour, and appreciation to the guests.
I wonder how many guests at a Chinese banquet know how much suffering and pain the small bowl of soup in front of them actually causes? I wonder if the bride and groom at their wedding celebration feast appreciate that their wedding day is being blessed by the extinction of an animal species crucial to the healthy balance of the ocean ecosystems, which has been on this earth millions of years longer than human beings?
As well as being an integral part of the ecology of our oceans, sharks are of vast commercial importance to the tourism industry. Just one reef shark can be worth nearly US$2million in tourism revenue over its lifetime, which can be shared by many individuals and companies – whereas a dead shark is worth nothing, save the $150 a Kg a single fisherman gets for its fins. This is a one off sale. The resulting bowl of soup may fetch $100.
Richard Peirce is a leading figure in shark conservation in the UK and his work and contributions in this field are recognised around the world. He was one of the first members of the Shark Trust in 1997, joined the board of trustees in 2004, and has been the Trust’s chairman for the last seven years. Richard is also founder of the Shark Conservation Society, and has played a key role in getting legislation passed in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf that protects sharks. He is the author of a number of books on sharks and is a regular contributor to radio and television programmes around the world.
Jeff: Why did you become so interested in sharks?
Richard: I was probably about 8 years old and a child in Kuwait when I was told I couldn’t go swimming off the beach opposite our house because there had been a shark attack. Little boys love that sort of thing and I became a shark nut from that moment on.
Jeff: What do you feel the ecological consequences would be if all the sharks of the world were to disappear?
Richard: Most shark species are apex predators and as such form vital links in ocean food chains. Healthy oceans need healthy food chains and we as humans need healthy oceans to survive.
Jeff: Since having become involved with shark protection and preservation, have you witnessed much change in the actual numbers of sharks being killed each year?
Richard: Accurate data is often lacking, but sadly as the demand goes up so does the supply, and my belief is that probably more sharks are being killed each year. In 2011 the British Ambassador in Beijing told me that at the end of 15 years there would be another 250 million middle class consumers in China. This is an enormous figure and indicates what will happen to the demand for luxury items like shark fin soup.
Jeff: When people join your society or other conservation websites and organisations, do they sign up and feel they have done as much now as they can, or do they have the opportunity to actually become more involved and take some sort of positive action themselves?
Richard: Most people joining the Shark Trust do so to support the work of the Trust and realise that apart from volunteering for events like Dive Shows, there is not much more they can do. With the Shark Conservation Society it’s totally different as most people join because they want to come on expeditions. SCS expeditions have been very successful in conservation and science achievements.
Jeff: If we, as individuals, really want to stop this senseless waste, what is the best practical and effective course of action we can take?
Richard: Much of the pressure on the world’s wildlife comes from Southeast Asia. In terms of sharks, the Chinese consume approximately 95% of the fins produced each year. The only effective action we could take to ensure a future for sharks is to somehow stop the demand from China. History shows that whenever there has been a demand, there will always be a supply.
Jeff: We have been hearing for many years now how sharks are being hunted to the brink of extinction, mostly for the Chinese market of shark fin soup. Do you believe that the recent CITES protection of sharks will have any affect on this, or as in the case of ivory, will the poaching just go on?
Richard: Obviously CITES Appendix I and II protections are better than nothing. But I live in Africa for the winter and have seen firsthand how ineffective “protections” can be for many land species like the rhino and the elephant. If we can’t police things on land what chance have we got in the middle of the oceans?
Jeff: Legislation is a good initial step for many forms of conservation, but in the end seems to have very little effect on reality. Shark numbers are still on a dramatic decline. Shark protection may work in the legal classroom but in your opinion will it actually stop the mass slaughter which simply satisfies a fetish of the dining table?
Richard: As I said in my last answers I am afraid legislation often makes humans feel good, but does little to protect the animals. I believe that for sharks and many other species we should concentrate our efforts on reducing the demand. A frightening and appropriate present day comparison is the narcotics trade. Despite all the world’s police forces being deployed against the trade in illegal narcotics, very little impact is made and the drugs being sold around the world increase every year.
The killing will only be stopped when we can limit the demand. At the end of the last labour government David Miliband, the then foreign secretary, declared the British Indian Ocean Territories a protected zone. This became the world’s largest marine protected area but there is virtually no capability to police it, so we have to wonder just how effective it is as a protected zone.
Jeff: Could you give us a brief history of when the global commercial shark fishery began? Do we know how many sharks there were in the oceans at that time and how many are left now in 2013?
Richard: This question is almost impossible to answer as the answer varies from species to species, however it was in the 1970’s that conservationists and scientists first started becoming aware of the impact on sharks of fisheries for finning. Doctor Shelley Clarke’s research published in 2006 estimated that the number of sharks being killed globally for the fin trade was between 26 and 73 million. Her best guess was 38 million. The massive difference between Doctor Clark’s upper and lower limits indicates the difficulties of establishing such figures.
Jeff: If the fishery was stopped today, do you think shark numbers would recover or has their habitat and food source been decimated as well by over-fishing, pollution, and climate change?
Richard: I have no doubt that if it were possible to stop all shark fishing today that over time numbers would recover, but we must remember that “shark” is an awfully big word which encompasses some 500 different species. Within this huge species list there are 8 orders of sharks, and different species have different reproductive strategies, and therefore some species will recover quicker than others.
Jeff: I have watched the trailer for the partially completed film ‘Fin Trails’. http://thefintrail.com/film/film.html It is hard hitting and factual as well as being an extremely important record to show global audiences the truth of what is happening. I hope that readers of this article will watch it. I have seen many such films, not just about sharks, but also the mass killing of whales, dolphins, seals, turtles, tuna……. The list goes on. As a filmmaker myself, I know how difficult it is to portray the horrors of such matters without putting the audiences off watching through to the end. Generally we the public find it hard to process bad news and take action to put things right. On their own, films generally have a short term effect on public awareness. Is this film part of a larger campaign?
Richard: The Fin Trail will be a feature length theatre release production, and as such the bar is set very high, which means a big budget of somewhere around half a million dollars. At the moment the film is on hold pending us achieving the funds to not only start, but also to finish it.
Jeff: In your opinion, why is there so little political will to protect this planet’s greatest asset, the oceans?
Richard: I have very little time for humans in terms of their ability to live in harmony with their surroundings on this planet. For animal species I am afraid we are rapidly seeing a situation where the only wildlife that will be able to remain wild, will be those animals that people are prepared to pay to go and see. With regard to environments like the oceans we seem to only see them as human playgrounds and pay scant attention to what we are doing to them. It seems to me that politicians really only want to get re-elected, and unless and until the environment goes to the top of the election agenda, the oceans as well as land habitats will continue to decline.
If you would like more details about the Shark Conservation Society and its work, visit www.sharkconservationsociety.com