73 million sharks are killed every year (WildAid, 2015). People kill them to make an expensive and exquisite meal from the delicious fins rather than to protect themselves from the danger the sharks can pose. Fishers catch them in trawls, hack off their fins and drop the carcasses back to sea while still alive. The practice is thoughtless, inhuman and damaging for the marine ecosystem. Thus, those who enjoy eating shark fin soup support the bloody extermination of sharks.
Shark fin soup is an exquisite delicacy that first appeared in China. Nowadays, the restaurants worldwide serve it. The global popularity of this meal gave a raise to uncontrolled fishing. The practice endangers all species of sharks and destroys the balance of the biosphere. The environmental activists attracted public attention to the reducing population of sharks and raised concern about the problem. As a result, shark fin import is banned in some states though the meal retains its popularity. The society should refuse from shark fins because it is anti-environmental, immoral and unhealthy.
Thoughtless Following the Mainstream
Shark fins became extremely popular due to popularization of Chinese cuisine. The demand initially increased in the 1980s, the period of rapid economic growth of China (Neville, 2014). Thereby, shark fin soup was spread all over the world. Connoisseurs appreciate it for the specific structure while the majority of people just want to taste exotic seafood and acquire the status of connoisseurs. Millions of sharks have already paid with their lives for the nouveau riche trend.
Shark fins are widely popular for a range of factors. First, it is an exotic meal. Shark fin soup is an element of Cantonese (South Chinese) cuisine; and rising interest to oriental cultures predefines the popularity of exotic oriental meal. Sharks are not domestic animals grown purposely for food; thus, eating them has a wild streak. Shark fins are exotic enough to arise curiosity, but they are not as bizarre as bird nests, dog meat or insects that are hardly digestible for a Western person.
Second, it is a status meal. For a long period, it has been a part of Chinese mandarins’ diet. The uniqueness of the product, the risks at catching, the expenses involved made it elite food. Nowadays, shark fins are still extremely expensive. One fin can cost about $1,300, and a bowl of soup, depending on the percentage of natural shark fin and the restaurant, up to $100 (Neville, 2014). Thus, ability to afford such an expensive and exotic meal is a marker of status. Economic growth in China resulted in increase of the middle class that could afford elite food. Therefore, the demand for shark fin soup and harvesting shark fins increased drastically.
Third, it is a gourmet meal. The taste and flavor of shark fin soup is provided by chicken or beef broth. Shark cartilage is tasteless, but it provides stringy, chewy, and sinewy texture much appreciated by connoisseurs. The quality and origin of fins is also important. Clarke et al. (2007) consider that the best raw cartilage comes from the lower caudal fins of the hammer fish and the shortfin mako (as cited in Latchford, 2013).
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Fourth, it is a healthy and popular seafood meal. In addition, traditional Chinese medicine ascribes healing properties to shark fins. Modern medicine doubts of any health benefits that outweigh the harm inflicted on the environment by uncontrolled shark landing.
The popularity of shark fins in mainstream culture roots in emotional attractiveness and ignorance of the population. Surveys conducted in China showed that 75% of respondents did not know that the soup was cooked from shark fins because it is called “fish wing soup” in Chinese, and 19% believed that fins could grow again (WildAid, 2015). A poll conducted by Latchford (2013) in the USA indicated that 26% of the population were unaware of shark population decline, and 42% doubted it. Some people do not know about the savage finning practice and suppose that using fins is an economically justified part of utilization of the shark carcass. Most people cannot evaluate the damage inflicted on the environment. Sharks have an image of a merciless man-eater. However, only some people know that few species of sharks are dangerous for humans, and the cases of shark attacks are rare.
Decline of Shark Population
Sharks are also called ‘sea shepherds’ or ‘lions of the ocean.’ They have evolved into extremely functional and almost indestructible predators. They stand on the top of the marine consumption chain and have no enemies in the natural environment. They are resistant to various diseases and can rapidly cure their wounds. Therefore, the evolution has not developed the mechanisms to regulate increased mortality. Sharks normally live long, up to 65 years; however, they need a long period to mature as well as give birth only few times and to one young at a time (Latchford, 2013; Neville, 2014). Anthropogenic influence on the marine biosphere has already damaged sharks’ natural habitat. Moreover, harvesting sharks for fins can prove fatal to these prehistoric creatures.
Sharks are fished for culinary though they can be trapped in fishing nets by accident, namely as a bycatch. However, increased demand for shark fin soup has caused rapid decline in shark population. Statistics present the shocking numbers. Buckley and Hile (2007) state that commercial catches of sharks increased by 300% in the period from 1950 and 2004 that is from 270,000 to over 810,000 tons pro year (as cited in Latchford, 2013). It is difficult to provide exact estimates of shark killing. Clarke et al. researched the problem over years and concluded that global yearly shark catch varies between 26 million to 73 million; consequently, the median catch is 38 million sharks per year (Save Our Seas Foundation, 2011).
The United States of America is the world’s largest exporter and importer of shark fins. The top seven catchers of sharks are Indonesia, India, Spain, Argentina, Taiwan, the USA, and Mexico. While fish fins are banned in some American states, the USA is responsible for yearly shark harvest of almost 37,000 tons according to 2008 estimate (Save Our Seas Foundation, 2011).
Currently, over 30% of sharks are listed as threatened or near threatened in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The data of the U.S. Atlantic surveys over 33 years indicate a dramatic decline in the Atlantic population of sharks, namely “a 93% decrease in blacktip sharks, a 97% decrease in tiger sharks, 87% for sandbar sharks, 98% for scalloped hammerhead, and a 99% decrease for bull sharks” (as cited in Latchford, 2013).
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists the blue shark as the most frequent victim of finning and comprises 17% of the shark catch as near threatened (Latchford, 2013). Other frequently traded species of sharks according to CITES are the great white shark (near threatened), the basking shark (near threatened), the whale shark (near threatened), the hammerhead (threatened), the shortfin mako (threatened), the silky (near threatened), the sandbar (threatened), the bull (near threatened), and the thresher (threatened) (Latchford, 2013). Uncontrolled shark catch on a global scale has brought many species of sharks to the verge of extinction.
Destruction of Marine Ecosystem
Reduction of the shark population is dramatic, and it is an irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem. Sharks are predators responsible for the sanitation of the biosphere. They control the population of sea and ocean fish as well as secure their healthy condition and sufficient food supply for the whole population of the ecosystem. Decline in the number of predators will result in violation of the ecological balance with hardly predictable range and consequences.
Some ocean areas have already suffered from the ecological disbalance causes by uncontrolled shark landing. For example, the loss of the great white shark will boost the population of seals, sea lions and smaller sharks. Tiger sharks eat animals that can destroy sea grass, otherwise sea grass beds will be depleted (Neville, 2014). The population of 11 species of great sharks formerly abundant along the Atlantic coast of the US has plummeted so dramatically that they cannot perform their role as apex predators anymore. It resulted in the increase of cownose rays which had consumed most of the scallop and would switch to oysters and clams by 2004 (Griffin, Miller, Freitas, & Hirshfield, 2008). Scallop, clams, and oysters are important seafood; and depletion of these species proves that the extermination of big predators can have a great impact on the ecosystem and economy. Without clams and other bivalves, filtration of phytoplankton will cease, and sea algae will spread without control (Griffin et al., 2008).
Immorality of Finning
Demand promotes supply. In this case, demand for shark fins has dramatically increased supply. Shark catching has taken ugly and inhuman forms. As shark fins are incommensurably more valuable than shark meat, fishermen catch a shark, cut its fins off and discard the carcass back to water to make space for the next shark. Finning is often done while the sharks are still alive. Without fins, a shark is helpless as it cannot maneuver in the water and dies of suffocation or bleeding. Even if sharks are trapped as bycatch with tuna or sardines, fishermen usually do not release them immediately; they take them on board to slice their fins off and throw them back in the sea bleeding and helpless (Latchford, 2013).
Culinary uses only dorsal, pectoral, and caudal fins of sharks. The valuable cartilage constitutes 3 to 5% of the total weight of a shark. Consequently, 95 to 98% of the shark is discarded in the process of finning (Latchford, 2013; Neville, 2014). It is an abnormal, immoral, cruel, and extremely wasteful practice. No creature deserves cruel treatment. Moreover, finning violates animal rights as moral law demands respect to life. It means not to kill animals without need, not to treat them with cruelty, and not to waste what can be used for food or other purposes.
Some countries have prohibited finning as it is a cruel practice violating the rights of animals. In the US, shark fins can be supplied with a part or with a whole carcass. This legislation change dropped the harvest of shark fins, made them extremely expensive, and reduced the export. However, the import of shark fins increased, and they are not obtained in a more acceptable manner.
Shark cartilage belongs to those legendary products that are ascribed universal healing properties. The Chinese believed that it had tumor suppressive action, reduced cholesterol and had overall beneficial effect on the organism. However, there is no credible clinical study proving the efficiency of shark fin against cancer. Meanwhile, recent researches explore that shark fins can be even harmful for health. Nalluri et al. (2014) discovered high concentrations of methylmercury in shark fins served in American restaurants. Moreover, cartilage accumulates toxic metals abundant in the marine biosphere due to the anthropogenic pollution. In addition, studies of Mondo et al. (2012) revealed the presence of neurotoxin BMAA (β-N-Methylamino-L-alanine) in dangerous concentration in shark fins. Scientists link this neurotoxin to Alzheimer’s disease. They believe that consumption of shark fins and meat can provoke degenerative brain diseases. Obviously, the health benefits from shark fins are exaggerated. Nevertheless, they cannot overrate the damage from mass catch of sharks. Current researches warn consumers against the possible dangers the shark fish can pose for human health.
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To recapitulate the aforementioned facts, mainstream infatuation with shark fins is not harmless. People should refuse from this delicacy for moral, ethical, ecological, and practical considerations. Shark landing has dramatically increased over the recent years and endangered most shark species. In some regions, such as Atlantic along the U.S. shore, shark population has declined to the extent that these predators cannot fulfill their function anymore. Disbalance of the ecosystem will draw severe consequences for the environment. Moreover, the balance upset will affect economy because usual marketable species will disappear or reduce in number. If humans do not stop thoughtless plundering of the waters, they will forever change the ecosystem; and the consequences are hardly predictable.