Saving Sharks From Finning
A serious effort to save some of the earth’s oldest, largest, and most successful predators is finally under way. But it needs to move faster.
Have you heard of cat-paw potage—the costly delicacy made by trapping servals, caracals, cheetahs, leopards, cougars, lynxes, bobcats, jaguars, jaguarundis, and ocelots, slicing off their paws (sometimes when they’re still alive), and leaving or landfilling everything that remains?
No, because it doesn’t exist. Nor could it. Civilized people wouldn’t stand for it. Yet most fishing nations, including the United States, tolerate or promote the exact analogue at sea, in which sharks are separated from their fins and, because shark meat is difficult to preserve, usually discarded. Killing sharks takes some doing, so they’re often tossed overboard alive. They tend to wriggle along the bottom until they starve or, if they’re lucky, drown or bleed to death. Finless sharks have been caught on cut bait, the only thing they can chase down.
Severed fins are dried and used in shark-fin soup, a traditional Asian dish served to signal wealth and celebrate lofty occasions. You can buy a single whale shark fin for $15,000 in some Asian markets. A bowl of soup costs about $100, and you won’t be able to taste the fins. Basically noodles made of protein, they merely absorb the flavor of other ingredients.
Like cats, most sharks caught commercially are apex predators. Sharks don’t reproduce much faster than cats. Their litter sizes are roughly the same; their gestation periods are comparable or longer; and they don’t reach sexual maturity as quickly. Embryos of the depleted sand tiger shark swim freely in each of two uteri, attacking and consuming siblings until only two survive. The grievously imperiled sandbar shark delivers eight or nine pups every other year. Duskies, in no better shape, are thought to reproduce every third year.
But unlike cats, sharks lack fur, and—with the exception of the fast swimmers, such as salmon sharks, porbeagles, makos, and great whites—they’re cold-blooded. So sharks, along with their cousins the batoids (rays, skates, sawfishes, and guitarfishes), tend to be unloved and unappreciated by humans. We hate sharks for the same reason we hate wolves—because we believe the superstitions about them and because they eat things we want to eat. But that hatred and fear also creates fascination, which can lead to study, understanding, and appreciation. In this regard (and as a foil for natural history reporting), I believe the 1975 movie Jaws has helped sharks more than it has hurt them.
I spend quality time with sharks, and while I occasionally swear at them, I love and respect them. March 28, 2008: I am 65 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico with my friend and guide Steve Rodger, fighting a 30-pound blackfin tuna on a 12-weight flyrod for half an hour. I have it beat; it circles a rod-length out, bronze flank flashing. I’m thinking sushi—but so is the bull shark that surfaces like a submarine, rocking the boat. I reel in the tuna’s lips. The shark lingers brazenly, shaking her meal. She is beautiful—sleek and hard like all sharks in their element. Out of their element—especially when hoisted for display at fishing tournaments—they bulge and sag grotesquely because they have no bones; they’re framed on cartilage. Tuna are faster than almost anything that swims, and about the only chance a shark of any species gets to eat one is when it’s struggling on the end of an angler’s line. She needed the sushi more than I did.
Master guide and raconteur Carl Moxey has taught me much about Caribbean fishes. But, like many Bahamians, he is rife with shark fear and fancy. He thinks they’ll bite you if you wade among them. My wife, Donna, and I are in his skiff approaching a sand spit in the vast bluewater between Andros Island and Cuba. “You see all dat black,” says Moxey casually. “Dat’s all bonefishes. Stay in the boat till the tide fall.” The black is the shadows cast by the iridescent-silver fish. They’re being pushed from deep water by at least 200 lemon sharks. Geysers erupt all around us. Dark dorsal fins and golden backs cleave the flat at appalling speed, sending bonefish into the air like welding sparks. I can’t stand the wait. I grab my flyrod and slog out into the spiraling galaxy of bonefish, hooking one on every cast. Each vanishes in an explosion of spray and gore. The feeding frenzy intensifies, clouding the water with silt and blood. Now there really is a chance of getting bitten, though it would be a mistake on the shark’s part. Eventually I land an intact bonefish. But when I release it a shark rushes in and takes it at my feet, brushing my left knee and sending me sprinting backward into the boat. “You crazy, mon,” intones Moxey.
On our way back to the spike camp on Water Cay we encounter a great hammerhead. The “hammer” on this and related species is an elaborate bioelectric sensory device for homing in on prey, even when it’s buried in sand. Thresher sharks herd fish with tails as long as their bodies. Tiger sharks are fond of sea turtles. Great whites dine on seals and sea lions. Some sharks glow in the dark. Bull sharks can live in freshwater lakes. Hooked makos are apt to leap over or into your boat.
The diversity (not number of species) of sharks and batoids rivals the diversity of birds, but we are losing it much faster. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lacks data to determine the status for almost all known species. Of the remainder, 37 percent are listed as threatened, 23 percent as vulnerable, 9 percent as endangered, and 5 percent as critically endangered.
For centuries sharks had been killed more or less sustainably for their meat, fins, skin, cartilage, and liver. But the economic boom in China and other East Asian nations has created the current global crisis. Before the late 1980s most Asians couldn’t afford shark-fin soup.