Recently, one of my sons loaned me a video titled “Sharkwater,” which was created by Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart. The thesis of the film is that unchecked hunting is decimating the world’s population of most types of sharks. Regretfully, based upon my inquiries, he appears to be right.
Sharks are one of the most vilified and misunderstood creatures on earth. Much of this is probably traced to Steven Spielberg’s movie “Jaws,” which left the public with a mindset that sharks are aggressive and always on the prowl for humans. They may be in a frenzy if there is blood in the water, but otherwise, all indications are that this is simply not true.
It is true that sharks are the top predator in the oceans of the world. But the average number of human deaths caused by shark attacks is only about 10 per year — worldwide. And very likely, all of those are caused by the sharks confusing a human swimmer or surfer for a sea lion, or some of its other natural prey.
And, of course, when there is a shark attack almost anywhere, that is a sensational story that invariably makes the news.
On the other hand, it is estimated that humans are now killing sharks at the rate of about 38 million per year. And since a female shark averages only about 1.2 pups every other year, and it takes about nine years for a shark to mature in the first place, sharks reproduce quite slowly. This means that their ranks are being seriously depleted.
Does it matter? Although the sharks’ involvement in nature’s balance is more complicated and involved than I am able to discuss, my information shows me that it makes a sizable difference because sharks keep the population of other species in check. So if we have fewer sharks, then there will be more sea lions, that will in turn be eating larger amounts of other fish, and more otters that will be eating larger amounts of clams, etc. So man’s interference with the way of nature can have huge repercussions.
But since most shark meat is not particularly desirable, why are hunters killing them? The answer is in the sharks’ fins. Shark fin soup has long been considered a delicacy in Eastern Asia that symbolizes wealth and prestige, so, even though it has almost no taste, it is often served at weddings and other celebratory banquets. In addition, it is also considered to have medical benefits that can nourish the blood, invigorate the kidneys and lungs, improve digestion and even be an energy supplement.
So even though a bowl can retail for anywhere between $10 and $100, with the rise of the middle class in Eastern Asia in the last 15 years, the demand for shark fin soup has skyrocketed.
As a result, dried shark fin today can fetch a retail price of $300 per pound or more. That makes shark fin, pound for pound, the most lucrative substance taken from the sea, and turns this into a billion-dollar-per-year business. But because the meat is not particularly edible or valuable enough to transport, many hunters simply engage in the practice of “finning.” This means that they capture a shark, cut off and keep all of its fins, and simply throw the rest of the body back into the ocean.
Then, since they can no longer swim, the sharks sink to the bottom and drown or are eaten by other fish.
This problem is similar to the one in Africa in which poachers kill elephants only for their ivory tusks. And both of these are examples of what can happen when no one has any property rights to a particular resource, so one person will attempt to plunder as much as he can before someone else does.
Stewart’s film documents some illegal poachers engaged in the practice of finning off Cocos Island, which is a national park in Costa Rica, but the practice is also heavy in many other places as well, such as Indonesia and Western Australia. And since most of the finning occurs in international waters, the practice is as unmanaged and unmonitored as it is widespread. It is true that sharks are also killed by mistake in nets or baited hooks set out for other fish, but the major reason for the huge killing of sharks still appears to be finning.
So what can be done about this situation? The most effective results so far have come from the education of the public. In areas like Thailand and Singapore, in which advertising has increased public awareness of this problem, demand for shark fins has decreased by about 25%.
And when environmental groups made the decision-makers at Disneyland Hong Kong aware of what was going on, shark fin soup was taken off its menu. Stewart is even taking his film for screenings in China, which is one of the countries most involved in consuming shark fins, with the hope that he can influence public opinion there as well.
But each of us can also have an impact upon this problem by recommending shark fins not be served for any meal we are involved with, and encouraging our friends and family to do the same. So please spread the word.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.judgejimgray.com .