‘Jaws’: The New Cause of the Seas

by Colin Woodard
Reprinted with permission of The Christian Science Monitor

The burgeoning demand for their fins may be decimating shark populations worldwide…

HONOLULU — Fall 1999 Hawaii’s commercial fishermen have long plied the vast Pacific Ocean in search of swordfish and tuna – the large offshore fish that supply succulent steaks and high-grade sashimi to restaurants around the world.

But in recent years Hawaiian boats have been landing a newer and more controversial product: shark fins. They are in great demand for use in the preparation of shark-fin soup, an ancient delicacy that sells for as much as $120 a bowl. Hong Kong is the main importer of shark fin, but Malaysia, Singapore, and mainland China have also dramatically increased imports over the past decade.

Many scientists and conservationists fear the burgeoning demand may be decimating shark populations worldwide, with potentially serious consequences for marine ecosystems.

Sharks are vulnerable because they are slow to grow and mature, have long gestation periods, and produce only a handful of young at a time. Most take 10 years or more to mature, carry their pups inside their bodies for months at a time, and have live births.

Sharks are “just not biologically equipped to take sustained fishing pressure,” says Sonja Fordham, a shark specialist at the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington. “Their populations collapse, and it takes decades for them to recover.”

As Asia recovers from its recent economic crisis – and other fish stocks collapse – demand for fins and other shark products has increased dramatically. Shark fins have become a major side business for fishermen around the world, with the United States, Japan, Indonesia, China, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates leading the way. Most sharks are caught unintentionally by vessels fishing for other species. Depending on the type of fishing gear they were caught with, many sharks survive capture and, in the past, were often released.

Commercial incentives

But with shark fins fetching $30 a pound at the dock, fishermen kill the sharks, cut off their fins, and throw the rest of the carcass overboard. While there’s a market for shark teeth, oil, meat, and cartilage, the meat spoils quickly unless blast frozen, and few fishing vessels have the appropriate equipment.

So what lands in the dock in Honolulu and other ports around the world are piles of fins. Shark landings in Hawaii have jumped by more than 20- fold – from 2,289 sharks in 1991 to 60,857 in 1998. And 99 percent of those “sharks” arrived at the dock solely as fins in 1998.

Nor is finning the only problem confronting sharks. Shark fishing has increased across the board in the past decade, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. But efforts to manage shark stocks are confounded by shortcomings in the data. Many countries lump shark landings together rather than by individual species, or fail to differentiate between a ton of shark carcasses and a ton of shark fins, even though the latter might represent 50 or 100 times as many individual fish.

“As a human being I look at it as a waste issue, but as a fisherman I see it as something that can hurt other fisheries,” says Bob Endreson, a retired fisherman who heads the Western Pacific Fisheries Coalition, a Honolulu-based conservation group. “Sharks are a vital part of the overall ecosystem. We don’t know what the result would be if we wipe them out.”

Finning has been banned on the US Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean coasts following dramatic collapses of many shark populations. Federal and state fisheries officials have joined conservationists in calling for a ban in Hawaiian waters. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, responsible for regulating fisheries under the Department of Commerce, has refused to take strong measures to halt the practice.

Some native Hawaiians have also called for a ban on finning, as many sharks traditionally have powerful spiritual significance. “We don’t worship the sharks like our ancestors did,” says Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., a cultural practitioner and Christian minister on the island of Maui. “But if our culture is alive in Hawaii, then we need to respect them.”

Standing on the deck of the Anna, a long-line fishing vessel that practices finning, fisherman Frank Baron says the industry is getting a bad rap. At a time when Hawaii is struggling to find homegrown industries, people should be more worried about maintaining or increasing fisheries jobs than the alleged plight of deepwater sharks, he says.

“Hawaii should be developing new product lines for shark teeth, cartilage, skin, oil, and meat” says Mr. Baron, rather than banning finning, which he agrees is wasteful.

He also agrees that many coastal shark species are in trouble, but says this is not true of the blue shark, a relatively fast-growing, deepwater species that accounts for 95 percent of the fins landed in Hawaii. “You know how big the Pacific Ocean is?” he asks. “There are plenty of blue sharks out there.”

Lack of monitoring

As with most shark stocks, there is not enough data or basic knowledge of the blue shark for scientists to make a sound appraisal of the effect of increased fishing pressure. Even highly fished species are poorly monitored or understood. The spiny dogfish, a small shark from the coastal Atlantic, is heavily fished to supply fish-and-chips shops in Britain. But Ms. Fordham says that the US has yet to develop a conservation plan for the species, which is one of the slowest gestating species of all.

Another shark species, the barndoor skate, is of no value to fishermen but is often killed accidentally in trawler nets. In the past decade it was driven to near extinction before a Canadian scientist, Ransom Myers, noticed its scarcity.

“The main problem is that sharks have traditionally been of very low value compared to other food fish, so we haven’t dedicated enough money to studying them,” says Fordham. “There’s so much we don’t know that it’s almost impossible to conserve them properly.”