conservation PHOTOGRAPHEr & Environmental writer
Shark Conservation - "The Most Ridiculous Made Up Middle-Class Job in The World!"
With major marine bodies calculating that between 63 and 273 million sharks are killed annually, it is no surprise that Lou Ruddle, Director of Sharkfest and Founder of Fin Fighters, believes that within "20-30 years they will be extinct!”
When your best friend labels shark conservation as a middle-class pastime, you know you have a big job on your hands. Paul Cox, Director of The Shark Trust, clearly took such banter in his stride but there is an underlying acceptance that you have to be economically comfortable to care. In reality, it is the struggle to become middle-class that stops one caring.
This could not be more true than with sharks. It is social insecurity and a desire to keep up with the Joneses that drives this extinction event. Or should I say Wangs, as consumers have almost exclusively been Chinese in origin.
The burgeoning middle-class in China are enjoying their economic freedom from the highly restrictive Chinese Communist Party. Eating prohibitively expensive, but utterly tasteless and nutrient deficient shark fin soup, is not only a social right but a great way to demonstrate your wealth, power and social prestige.
Rather like rhino horn, shark fin is also valued for its perceived medicinal properties. Also like #rhinohorn, it has no proven medicinal benefit. However, the deeply ingrained cultural norms that accompany the use of shark fin as a medicine are hard to combat.
It’s like trying to persuade someone that the expensive, brightly packaged branded medicine on Western chemist shelves is no more effective than their cheap unbranded rivals.
It is rather ironic that consuming shark meat and shark fin has been linked to some significant health risks. Marine species absorb and retain heavy metals and toxins from the water but when they consume their prey, this ‘#bioaccumulation’ magnifies further up the food chain. It is not surprising that this ‘#biomagnification’ becomes particularly concentrated in long-lived and large species such as sharks.
Multiple studies of dried fins, shark meat and #SharkFinSoup in restaurants have revealed that Monomethylmercury (#MMHg), a volatile and toxic organic mercury, has been discovered in concentrations significantly above safe guidelines. The consequences?
Well, MMHg shouldn’t be taken lightly. It is highly toxic, particularly to babies in the womb and young children. The World Health Organisation (#WHO) states that “neurological symptoms include mental retardation, seizures, vision and hearing loss, delayed development, language disorders and memory loss.”
The Good News
It’s definitely not all bad news. “In October 2016, China’s #CITES Management Authority announced that shark fin consumption in China had fallen by more than 80%” This is, in no small part, due to the #WildAid shark Ambassador campaign featuring famous and well-respected characters such as Yao Ming, a retired Chinese basketball player.
However, eradicating such a lucrative trade is tricky. It’s a bit like squeezing a balloon. Apply pressure on the trade and it just goes somewhere else. According to a 2018 WildAid report, ‘Sharks in Crisis,’ the diminishing trade in China is being replaced by markets in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand.’
It is clear that regulation disunity is not helping as it provides a wealth of legal loopholes. Some sharks can be legally consumed but, let’s be honest, when purchasing shrivelled up shark fin, one fin can look very similar to another. This means illegal shark fins can be sold next to legal shark fins and no-one would be any the wiser.
Another big misconception that is protecting the trade is ignorance. One shouldn't just assume that Asia is solely responsible. Although the UK Customs bans importing whale meat and even that highly endangered species, the sausage, shark fin is a different matter.
As a member of the EU, you are legally allowed to pack 20kg of dried shark fin in your suitcase, take it to any of the 27/28 countries in the EU, and sell it to local Chinese restaurants. According to Bite-Back, a shark conservation charity, this would earn you £3,600 and allow a restauranteur to make 705 bowls of very expensive shark fin soup.
With Spain, France and Portugal amongst the Top 20 shark catchers between 2002-2011, such loopholes clearly suit them. Even the UK rather shamefully made it to the Top 20 of both shark meat exporters (9) and importers (12) from 2000 – 2009. With #BREXIT in our sights, this provides the perfect opportunity to ban shark fin imports and shark fin soup in the UK!
Shark Conservation is not just about regulations. It’s about PR. One has to overcome the fear factor. If everyone is paranoid that they will be killed by sharks, their conservation will be an uphill struggle. However, the reality is that only 12 people are killed by sharks annually whereas 11,417 sharks are killed by humans...EVERY HOUR!
Bite-Back reveals that "64% would prefer sharks not to exist." Steve Backshall , the TV Naturalist, revealed to #Biteback, “it’s my belief that this deep-rooted fear is hindering shark conservation efforts and yet an ocean without sharks could be catastrophic for life on earth. The consequences will certainly impact the seafood we eat and the air we breathe.”
Persecuting marine predators like sharks is equivalent to dropping a grenade into our own food supply chain. According to Science review in 2011, the decimation of sharks on the eastern seaboard allowed rays to flourish and caused the collapse of a well-established scallop fishery.
With 20% of our average animal protein sources coming from fish, it doesn't take much imagination to realise that continued persecution of sharks looks set to disrupt our cosy middle-class lifestyles.