Monday, November 26, 2012

Kill the Sharks, Destroy the Ocean

Over seventy-three million sharks are killed around the world to meet the demand for a product that is less than five percent of its body weight – their fins. The fins are used for “shark fin soup,” a delicacy so tasteless that chicken broth must be added to it in order to make it palatable. The soup has a lavish past as it was once reserved for Chinese emperors and noblemen who believed that shark fins increased vitality and possessed attributes capable of curing many diseases. It was later banned in China until the mid-1980’s because it was reminiscent of bourgeoisie imperialism. By the time the ban was removed, China’s middle class had exploded. The middle class embraced the soup for its symbolism of power and wealth, serving it at banquets and weddings to impress guests. The insatiable demand for the soup is met through the process of ‘shark finning.’ Fishermen catch the sharks, slice off their fins, and dump the shark back into the ocean. The shark itself has no value, so the fishermen do not want to waste their limited space storing the carcasses. This allows the fisherman to kill exponentially more sharks than they could if they were required to keep the rest of the shark. When thrown back into the ocean the sharks are almost always still alive. But without their fins, the sharks are unable to swim, a required activity to replenish the necessary oxygen to continue to live. Sharks that do not die in this manner are slowly eaten alive by other animals. But the cruelty involved in shark finning is not the only reason to regulate the practice. Sharks are apex predators, also known as the top of their food chain. When shark populations decrease, the balance of the ecosystem is thrown off as the uneaten prey vastly increase in numbers. For example, a large staple of the diet of some species of sharks are rays. In many waters were shark populations have decreased, ray populations have greatly increased. The rays then gorge on ‘bivalves,’ such as oysters and clams. This in turn has led to the closing of several clam and oyster fisheries. In addition, bivalves feed themselves by filtering through the ocean water and thus are imperative to the cleanliness and health of the ocean. Decreasing populations of bivalves in the ocean has been compared to removing the filter of a swimming pool. This causes algae to bloom, resulting in an oxygen-deprived dead zone and the end of most ocean life in the area. Recognizing the significant importance of sharks to the ocean’s health; laws and regulations both internationally and domestically have attempted to curve shark finning numbers. Recent international and federal laws aim at the shark finning process, requiring fishermen to carry the shark carcass as well as the fin to decrease the numbers of sharks harvested. Very recent state legislation in California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, and Washington prohibit the possession and trade of shark fins altogether. Removing shark fins from the market of a state means less harvested sharks and a healthier ocean. But these efforts may be too late. The biology of most sharks prevents them from sexually maturing until they reach several years of age and even when they can reproduce, they give birth to only a few young. Therefore, it will take decades for shark populations to improve. Until then, the adoption of state laws parallel to those discussed above as well as uniform international agreements is of the utmost importance to the health of the ocean. -Corey Mishler, Legal Intern