Shark Finning: A Gruesome Practice
Shark finning is the gruesome practice of cutting off a live shark’s fins and throwing the rest of the animal back into the sea, where it dies a slow and painful death. The fins are used in China and by Chinese communities elsewhere in the world, as the key ingredient in shark-fin soup. This glutinous broth is a traditional Chinese dish dating back more than 1000 years. Once a rare delicacy consumed only by the Chinese aristocracy, it played an important role as an indicator of social standing.
In the past 20 years the demand for shark-fin soup has rocketed. It is still associated with privilege and social rank – a bowl of soup can cost up to $100 – but the explosive growth in the Chinese economy means that hundreds of millions of people can now afford this luxury.
Shark-fin soup is also popular in traditional Chinese medicine (although research suggests that it contains so much mercury and other toxins it is barely fit for human consumption). It is estimated that as many as 73 million sharks are killed for shark-fin soup every year – an indiscriminate slaughter that is pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
Many people fear sharks and don’t care whether they survive or not. But, ecologically, as top predators their disappearance will disrupt entire ocean ecosystems. Economically, they are worth more alive than dead – in contrast to the short-lived profits of shark finning, shark diving has become a sustainable, multi-million pound business. Scientifically, medical researchers want to learn how shark wounds heal so quickly and how they seem to be resistant to cancer. Spiritually, an ocean without sharks is unthinkable – like the Serengeti without lions.
In 1999, the UN developed the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, but no country is forced to participate and progress has been slow.
It is critical to reduce demand, by changing attitudes. There are encouraging signs that shark-fin soup consumption is declining and several dozen airlines and hotel chains have stopped serving it. In 2012, the Chinese Government banned it at official functions, though the motive was more for austerity than conservation.