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
The life of a Great White Shark
The great white shark, known scientifically as Carcharodon carcharias, embodies the apex predator of the ocean. This majestic creature’s life is a testament to survival, adaptability, and the intricate balance of the marine ecosystem.
Born in the waters off coastal regions, a great white shark begins its life as a pup within the safety of nurseries, typically found in warm, shallow waters. The pups, measuring around 5 feet in length at birth, are immediately equipped with an innate instinct for survival.
As they grow, great whites embark on a journey, venturing into deeper and cooler waters, often covering vast distances across the ocean. These apex predators are perfectly adapted hunters, relying on their impressive senses to detect prey. Their acute sense of smell, aided by specialized sensory organs known as ampullae of Lorenzini, helps detect the faintest traces of blood in the water from several miles away.
Feeding primarily on seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals, great whites are known for their powerful jaws lined with rows of razor-sharp teeth. Their hunting techniques often involve stealth, utilizing their streamlined bodies to approach prey from below and striking with incredible speed and force.
Despite their fearsome reputation, great whites play a crucial role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. As top predators, they help regulate the population of prey species, preventing overpopulation that could disrupt the balance of the food chain.
Reproduction among great white sharks is a slow and careful process. Females reach sexual maturity between 12 and 18 years of age, while males mature earlier, around 9 to 10 years old. Mating occurs through complex courtship rituals, with females giving birth to a small number of live pups after a gestation period of about 12 to 18 months.
However, the life of a great white shark is not without challenges. Human activities, including overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction, pose significant threats to their population. Additionally, despite their formidable presence, great whites are vulnerable and face dangers from entanglement in fishing gear and accidental bycatch.
Despite these challenges, great white sharks continue to inspire awe and fascination among scientists and nature enthusiasts. Their presence in the ocean serves as a reminder of the delicate balance and interconnectedness of marine life, emphasizing the need for conservation efforts to protect these magnificent creatures for future generations to admire and study.
Want to learn more about sharks? Visit The Shark Trust website: www.sharktrust.org
Book Review: Sea Mammals
This is a book packed with information about some of the most iconic and charismatic marine species. I have a particular soft spot for the pinnipeds, seals and sea lions, due to some incredible diving encounters over the years. So these were the pages I first turned to.
Once picked up this book is hard to put down. Polar Bears, Narwhal, Sea Otters, manatees, whales and dolphins adorn the pages with beautiful photographs and illustrations. Each turn of the page lures you in to discover more about a species you love, one you want to learn more about, some you have never heard of and even includes the details of fascinating animals that are sadly now extinct.
I think what I love most about this book is how it is organised. Rather than simply lump the animals into taxonomic groupings, they are put into chapters that tell you a story about them. Whether it is the story of their evolution, how they were discovered, their biology, behaviour or need for conservation. Once you have decided on an animal to delve deeper into, each species has its own story, as well as key information about size, diet, distribution, habitat and conservation status.
There is plenty to enjoy in this delightful book. Plenty to learn too. As the cold dark nights draw in, I can see myself delving into this book time and time again. This is a perfect gift for anyone that loves the ocean and its inhabitants. Or just treat yourself.
What the publisher says:
From the gregarious sea otter and playful dolphins to the sociable narwhal and iconic polar bear, sea mammals are a large, diverse, and increasingly precious group. In this book, Annalisa Berta, a leading expert on sea mammals and their evolution, presents an engaging and richly illustrated introduction to past and present species of these remarkable creatures, from the blue whale and the northern fur seal to the extinct giant sperm whale, aquatic sloth, and walking sea cow.
The book features more than 50 individual species profiles, themed chapters, stunning photographs, and specially commissioned paleo-illustrations of extinct species. It presents detailed accounts of these mammals’ evolutionary path, anatomy, behavior, habitats, and conservation. And because these are key species that complete many food chains and have the widest influence of all sea life, the book also offers insights into a broad variety of marine worlds today and in the future.
About the Author:
Annalisa Berta is professor emerita of biology at San Diego State University. A specialist in the anatomy and evolutionary biology of marine mammals, especially baleen whales, she formally described a skeleton of the early pinniped Enaliarctos. She is the author of Return to the Sea: The Life and Evolutionary Times of Marine Mammals and the editor of the award-winning Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises: A Natural History and Species Guide.
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 26th September, 2023
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