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Greed, Soup and The Rape of the Oceans

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What would you say if I told you that a particular kind of soup will bring about the extinction of an entire group of species of marine life, which will in turn contribute to the total collapse of all the world's fisheries by 2048.

Sounds like a rather alarmist statement doesn't it? Darned right, outrageous even! I bet you're all thinking I've really gone around the bend. I must be talking to aliens and wearing a tinfoil hat a little too tight. How can soup, shark fin soup to be exact, bring about the end of life in the oceans as we know it? I'm glad you asked! The answer is that shark fin soup has grown to such enormous popularity in the past 3 decades that sharks, the Apex predators of this world, are being hunted to extinction.

Originally a southern Chinese dish, shark fin soup goes back to the Sung dynasty (AD 960-1279) and became a dish served at banquets during the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644). The demand for shark fins remained relatively low for centuries as it was considered the food of the elite.

Shark Fin SoupIn the past few decades however, thanks in part to economic prosperity, it has become standard fare for weddings and important banquet dinners. A symbol of wealth and privilege, serving shark fin soup is viewed as showing respect for your guests.

The demand for fins has consequently exploded and shark finning has become common practice as a highly lucrative fishery. A report by Wild Aid states that, "an estimated 26 to 73 million sharks are traded globally each year. Now sharks in all regions of the globe are sought solely for their fins."

Shark finning consists of catching large numbers of sharks, usually by long line fishing, cutting off all of the shark's fins and dumping the rest of the animal, often still alive, back into the ocean. It is much easier and more profitable to just bring back the light compact fins that make up less than 5% of the animal and leave the rest to waste. When you consider that well over 8,000,000 people die of starvation each year, this senseless, cruel and ultimately wasteful act is absolutely mind boggling.
Finning Sharks
In 3 decades we have managed to empty the oceans of over 90% of the world's shark populations. I don't know about you but I find that incredibly alarming! At this continued rate of pillaging, I don't foresee oceans with sharks by the time my children are adults. Apex predators you see, can't recover from over fishing. They take a long time to grow and mature and they reproduce fairly slowly.

In a balanced world that makes complete sense! You don't want the top predators to reproduce quickly like their smaller prey or they would soon deplete their own sources of food. But when the top fish suddenly becomes prey to a more insidious and out of control predator, then that delicate balance is thrown for a loop. Sharks are easy pickings for humans. They don't converge in any of the deep areas of the oceans below 3,000 meters. As such all species of sharks are within mankind's reach; and mankind is taking them all.

It is an outrageous tragedy that we are eradicating not just one species, but an entire group of species; one so elusive and diverse that we've barely scratch the surface of all we have to learn from them. Sharks are an indispensable part of our marine ecosystem. For one small example, they feed on species of fish that in turn consume plankton. Plankton converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. The oceans create 70% of our oxygen and yet we are quickly depleting them of life to our own detriment.

On a more immediate and practical note, there is also the problem of fisheries such as shrimp and scallops that are already collapsing because the top predator is no longer able to perform its role of controlling the populations of skates and rays and other creatures that feed on said shellfish. The delicate chain of our ecosystems begins to unravel very quickly once you remove the top predators.

Sadly, the disappearance of sharks is but a symptom of an even larger problem. Lacking any international agreements on our waters and all of its inhabitants, the oceans have become a virtual free for all. As Sharkwater filmmaker Rob Stewart told me in a telephone interview, "there is tremendous waste that goes on out there".

A study by Boris Worm and Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University published in 2003 warned that "industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left, since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10% – not in just some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles".

The immense frustration is that people are aware of the problems and still little is being done to reverse these dangerous trends. There is complete apathy and inaction on the part of most governments. And I'm not pointing an accusatory finger at only second or third world nations for failing to impart controls on what happens in their oceans or for their fishing and trade practices. Rich western nations are equally if not more responsible for the rape of the oceans.

Take Canada for example. We may have some measure of restrictions on shark finning yet we have no regulation or law that prevents shark fins from being imported into the country. It didn't take me long to find a fair number of restaurants in Toronto that serve shark fin soup.

Even my home town of Hamilton where, as the manager of one popular restaurant told me, "shark fin has not really caught on with most of the people here," I nevertheless found that almost every Chinese restaurant in the downtown Hamilton core serves shark fin soup. It may not be listed on the menu, but many do have it if you ask.

What is the point then, of making the act of finning illegal on our own shores if we import the product of that same illegal action? Is the effect not exactly the same? Have we no responsibility whatsoever for the products we choose to allow into our country? Then again,our own record is pretty shaky when it comes to protecting not just the environment, but endangered species as well.

John Baird, the Minister of the Environment showed great enthusiasm for Rob Stewart's message and wanted to get involved. But of course, once the photo opp was complete, nothing was done. Really, you had to know that his promise of action was non existant. He's a politician after all.

Mr Baird has not only failed to take any type of action whatsoever, but Canada led the charge against adding two new species of sharks the CITES endangered list. This in spite of Mr. Baird's office having received 3500 e-mails in a single day on the issue. The voices of the people were completely ignored.

CITES, or The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species met recently and a proposal to add more species of sharks to an already ridiculously small list was discussed. Canada stood firm in its refusal to add two species, the Porbeagle shark and the Spiny Dogfish to the list. Thanks to Canada's insistence, these two species did not make the endangered list even though experts agree their numbers have also declined by over 90 percent.

So why would Canada not support the inclusion of these two species to the CITES list Mr. Baird? Perhaps it's because like illegal finners, we're making a killing off these animals? Canada has fisheries for both sharks and is not about to give up a lucrative trade even if we are playing with a soon to be non-existent resource.

The Spiny Dogfish, valuable as a main source of fish and chips is often re-classified as Rock Salmon to get around the pesky conservation issue and make it more palatable to consumers. It reproduces painfully slowly and very susceptible to overfishing. "Living up to 70 years, the female does not breed until she is over twelve years of age. Gestation can be up to two years and she will produce a maximum of 20 live pups at a time."

The Porbeagle, an older and smaller relative of the Great White is currently being so over fished that according to COSEWIC that "the landings now are comprised mostly of juveniles." Did you get that? They are catching young sharks almost exclusively. Which means they are not even giving them a chance to grow to sexual maturity. They are literally catching them all! Even Canada's own national action plan for the management and conservation of sharks acknowledges that "given the low productivity of the Porbeagle, it is expected to take several decades for this species to recover from its low abundance."

Now here's a perfect example of typical Canadian politics at work. "COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) was established as an advisory body in 1977 to meet the need for a single, official and national classification of wildlife species at risk and operates under the auspices of SARA (Species at Risk Act)."

On the COSEWIC report, the Porbeagle is listed as endangered; yet on the SARA report this same shark is not considered endangered, threatened or even a species of concern. It has no status whatsoever. From one report to the next, the problem ceased to exist. Ah the magic of bureaucracy.

But I don't mean to single out the ruling Reforms (oops, sorry I mean Conservatives) alone. The Liberals, once the natural ruling party of Canada have also been quite naturally ineffective at protecting our resources. Paul WatsonAccording to Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the newer greener Liberals themselves held a party dinner this past summer complete with, you guessed it, Shark Fin Soup. "This at the same time the Canadian movie Sharkwater by Toronto Film Maker Rob Stewart was the biggest box office documentary in Canadian history." Mr. Dion, say it isn't so! This level of ignorance on matters of endangered species would be comical if not so tragically urgent.

I think it's time we all take a high dose of reality and face the facts – our fearless leaders will only lead us to disaster by their inability and unwillingness to act. It's going to be up to us as individuals to lead the way to sustainable develoment and the protection of our increasingly fragile planet.

So lets start by saving sharks. Why? Because they are one symptom of a giant problem: the collapse of all of the world's fisheries by 2048. Folks, that's in OUR lifetime, not some distant century away. Think over 8,000,000 people starving to death every year is drastic? Then consider how much more desperate world hunger will be when there are virtually no more edible fish in the sea. Think of all the nations that depend on the deep blue bounty. As Ransom Myers states in the Dalhousie University report: "If present fishing levels persist, these great fish will go the way of the dinosaur."

Whale SharkThe bright side to this very dark problem is the simplicity of one solution. Don't eat shark fin soup. Don't consume any shark products at this point. Refuse to patronize restaurants that serve shark fin soup until they remove it from their menu and encourage others to do the same. It's the easiest action we can all take that will have enormous impact. In this instance we are not being asked to make any large sacrifices, compromise comfort or even donate any money. We are just being asked to avoid one kind of soup!

This I think we can all do!

Find out more about the precarious state of our oceans and what you can do to help by visiting the following websites: Wild Aid, Sea Shepherd, Shark Trust, Saving Sharks, Bite Back, and of course the Sharkwater website.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada website is the source department for information related to COSEWIC and SARA. All other satistics and information are from the websites of WildAid, Sea Shepherd, SharkWater, Sharktrust, BiteBack, and Dalhousie University and SeaWeb.

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About Nathalie Vanderheyden

  • Nice set of articles Nathalie! Keep it up!

  • Nathalie

    Thank you so much. This topic means a great deal to me. I appreciate that!

  • What, no recipe?:)

  • Nathalie

    Shark Fin has no flavor. Try using tofu. Same effect without the carnage.

  • bliffle

    Sharkfin soup gets it’s flavor entirely from the herbs and sauces that are added to it. Uninformed people believe that it is an aphrodisiac.

  • RJ

    Great article! Here’s some interesting information:

    “Spiny dogfish are fished for food in Europe, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Chile. The meat is primarily consumed in England, France, the Benelux countries and Germany. The fins and tails are processed into fin needles and are used in less expensive versions of shark fin soup in Chinese cuisine. In England it is sold in “fish and chip shops” as “rock salmon”, in France it is sold as “small salmon” (saumonette) and in Belgium it is sold as “sea eel” (zeepaling). It is also used as fertilizer, liver oil, and pet food, and, because of its availability and manageable size, as a popular vertebrate dissection specimen, especially in high schools.”

    Their conservation status is “Vulnerable” …

  • Nathalie

    Thanks so much for commenting and adding the extra info guys. There’s so much to talk about on this issue. I didn’t even get into all the health stores and pharmacies that sell shark cartilage pills for joints and arthritis. I even saw one bottle labeled as “prevents tumors”. Can you believe that?

  • RJ

    “I didn’t even get into all the health stores and pharmacies that sell shark cartilage pills for joints and arthritis.”

    Yeah, my grandmother (who has terrible arthritis in her hands) once received some shark cartilage pills from a “natural health” store as a gift from a family member. As you can imagine, it didn’t help…