Recently, many Australians were up in arms about the treatment of live export animals sent abroad from our shores. However, many who expressed concern and disgust at reports of unnecessary cruelty to sheep and cattle may not be aware of a more brutal and completely wasteful practice, occurring continually in our oceans and going largely ignored – shark finning.
Shark fins are a billion dollar global industry, used to make shark fin soup and traditional Chinese medicines. Over the last few years the demand for these products has absolutely soared and the impact this has had on global shark populations is devastating.
Somewhere between 10 and 100 million sharks are caught every year for their fins. A bowl of shark fin soup in a posh Chinese restaurant can fetch more than $100, whilst shark meat is worth considerably less per kilo. Thus, with economic shrewdness, many fisherman drastically increase profit by removing the dorsal and caudal fins from the sharks they catch then discarding the remainder of the animal back into the ocean, usually still alive but virtually unable to move. This process is called ‘finning’ and is deplorable from at least few perspectives.
Foremost, it’s horribly cruel. Sharks cannot move without their fins but must do so in order to maintain the flow of water across their gills and thus, the level of oxygen in their blood. They also need to move to catch their prey and avoid being eaten themselves. With their fins removed sharks sink helplessly to the ocean floor where they die of asphyxiation, starvation or they are eaten.
Furthermore, in a world where most people don’t have enough to eat (whilst the remainder of us struggle with an obesity epidemic), is it not complete, market-driven madness that large, protein-rich animals, already hooked and landed, be thrown back into the water un-harvested?
Finally, sharks are apex predators and, as such, ecosystem engineers, maintaining the function of natural systems and the biodiversity within them from the top down. It’s now very well established that when large predatory animals are removed from ecosystems, they crash and biodiversity falls. This is sad from a conservation point of view but also has very negative impacts on fundamentally important industries including fisheries and tourism. The IUCN currently lists 39 species of sharks and rays as endangered, vulnerable or critically endangered, yet they are still caught by the millions worldwide.
Defenders of shark fin soup maintain that the majority of fins used in soup are harvested from carcasses that are caught at sea and brought back to market whole, but independent analyses of confiscated fins from all over the world suggest otherwise. Many countries have banned finning, but most international waters are unregulated and where there is demand, there will be supply, at least until the resource is completely exhausted and shark sightings become confined to museums.
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