Shark tale

Hey waiter, what’s in my soup?

The shark, one of the ocean’s oldest species, is being threatened for its fins.

The shark, one of the ocean’s oldest species, is being threatened for its fins.

For more information and some difficult-to-view photos, see the recent report by WildAid.

Sharks have been swimming the earth’s oceans for more than 400 million years. That’s 100 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared on land. If it weren’t for the relatively recent deadly pursuit by another big predator—a “super-predator,” if you will—they would certainly still be king of the seas.

Who is the armed thug looking to dethrone the shark as master of the deep? It’s mankind, the only breathing species capable of wiping out entire populations of the planet’s great beasts. Marine scientists estimate that 90 percent of the world’s large fish, including sharks, have disappeared since 1950. It turns out that our evolutionary success is bad news for Great Whites.

You’ve probably heard about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets, but you may not know about other at-risk species. More than 100 million sharks, rays and skates are getting wiped out each year due to hunting and by-catch. By-catch is when a type of fish other than the target is caught in trawlers, nets or long lines. The non-target animals are killed by the process and thrown back in the water as waste.

The hunting might not be so damaging if it were done in a sustainable way, or done for sustenance. As it is, many sharks are killed just for their fins, for use in Asian cuisine and traditional medicine. “Finning” is the practice of hauling a live shark on deck, slicing off its fins, and tossing it back in the water to drown or bleed to death. Finning happens to about 50 million sharks every year, according to a report from WildAid, a San Francisco-based public charity.

Demand for shark fins has shot up in the past 20 years, due mainly to cultural and economic changes in East Asia. This is especially true for the enormous Chinese populace, for whom shark fin soup has gone from a rare delicacy to a common dish at weddings and other special events. But demand isn’t limited to exotic locales, as a stroll through San Francisco’s Chinatown easily confirms. It is illegal to fin a shark in U.S. waters, but it’s still legal to engage in trade.

Today, the rapidly expanding and largely unregulated shark fin trade represents one of the most serious threats to shark populations worldwide. Shark fins fetch top prices in Asian markets, more than almost any other seafood product, reports WildAid. That has led to unfettered killing across the globe. It has also led to criminal conduct and under-reporting on the part of legitimate fishermen.

Sharks have become more desirable as other fish species disappear from over-fishing. Add to that the fact that sharks live long lives and reproduce slowly. The result: Shark populations are slow to rebound once their numbers have been diminished.

Just one more thing. Shark fin has almost no taste. That’s right, to make a delicious soup, you have to add chicken broth, ham and shitake mushrooms. The fin is just there to absorb the other flavors and add texture.

What can you do? For starters, don’t eat shark fin soup, whether you’re traveling or here at home. Don’t buy products containing shark fins, and donate generously to organizations involved with international legislation and conservation.