With a powerful torpedo-shaped body almost the size of a bus, the ability to sniff out one drop of blood in 25 gallons of water—or up to three miles away—and fearsome toothy jaws, it's no wonder the very thought of sharks can send shivers up the spine. (Cue the theme music from Jaws).
But these deep-sea predators have much more to fear from humans than the other way around. Used in everything from soup to nutritional supplements and skincare products, sharks represent a multi-billion dollar global industry and the growing demand is pushing them towards extinction. Alas, even these eating machines have champions. And if they have their day during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of Parties, which starts Saturday, eight shark species will be protected to ensure the sustainable trade of their products—oceanic whitetips, scalloped, smooth and great hammerheads, sandbar sharks, porbeagle sharks, and spiny dogfish (a type of shark).
It's not going to be easy. The shark trade—especially in fins—is a predatory business. Think: shark cartel overlords, gangs, and smugglers (PDF file) who routinely take part in a lucrative, yet grisly, dealings estimated to bring in over a billion dollars annually.
Add in the fact that shark fin soup—once a luxe Chinese delicacy reserved for special occasions—is now available to the rising middle class whose demand is not only growing, its spreading west.
Then there's the well-meaning American Cancer Society touting the benefits of shark liver oil as a complementary or alternative form of treatment for cancer and other diseases. Sprinkle in a few general misconceptions such as sharks deliberately targeting human prey and you have the makings of a morass the size of a gaggle of great whites.
Here's what we do know: Sharks have been around in some form for about 400 million years. Just because they've toughed it out for so long doesn't mean they're invincible. Sharks are slow growers. They mature late, have a small number of offspring, and are slow to recover their population if it is depleted.
Oceana's marine scientist Kerri Lynn Miller points out that because sharks are at the top of the marine food chain they are invaluable to maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. "No one knows exactly what the oceans will look like without sharks, but some possibilities include economically important fisheries shut down; coral reefs shift to algae dominated systems; seagrass beds decline; and species diversity and abundance decline with the loss of habitats."
Any of these scenarios could have a huge environmental and economic impact. Unfortunately the bad PR surrounding shark attacks continues to make it difficult for people to get warm and fuzzy about predators. Even though shark attacks have declined sharply in the U.S. in recent years, most notably to only 28 in 2009, according to a study by the University of Florida who also have proven you are statistically more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than you are by the teeth of a shark.
But Miller underscores one of the more cruel aspects of shark harvesting. "Shark fins are the most lucrative portion of the shark, so it is more advantageous for the fishermen to cut off the fins and through the remaining body over board."
In the United States and other countries, fishermen are required to land sharks with their fins in a 5% fin-to-body ratio (meaning they must keep the bodies on board the boat) adds Miller. However, according to the World Wildlife Foundation, 50% of all shark fins sold in the world come through a market in Hong Kong where trade is largely unregulated.
Steven Weathers, producer and host of Foreigner Perspective who resides in Shanghai says shark fin soup is often served in China at formal banquets, particularly at weddings or large celebrations where the host wants to treat his guests to the most expensive delicacies. "I've seen some restaurants serve small bowls of the soup for about 100 USD." Weathers notes that much of the shark fin served in China is rumored to be fake now. "Mashed up bones and cartilage of other fish are reshaped as shark fin," he says. It would be difficult to tell because shark fin doesn't have a taste on its own, it draws flavor from the broth which is—you guessed it—chicken.
Stateside, plenty of Chinese restaurants continue to serve the controversial dish that was deemed so fine as to be on Alice Waters' plate should she be able to choose her last meal on earth. The queen of all things organic and sustainable later recanted this wish, but a recent call to the Wynn's Las Vegas restaurant, Wing Lei, confirmed that while shark fin soup is not listed on the menu, it is available—and served daily. (Calls to confirm the origin of the fins or the price of the dish were met with a request to call back later, and then a period on hold that became far too long to endure.)
In any case, Miller says there are measures being taken to preserve the species in the U.S. The House passed the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 and it's now in the Senate's hands to determine whether sharks should be landed whole with their fins naturally attached. "This would ban shark finning within U.S. waters," she says.
For now, the global future of the species rests, at least in part, in the convention proceedings. A CITES Appendix II listing would limit trade to sustainable levels by requiring export permits. By limiting trade to sustainable levels Miller says, "It would put a threshold on the number of sharks that are being caught and would help to quantify how many sharks are being killed."