The video footage is horrific: live sharks are hoisted onto the decks of boats, where people slice off their fins, spurting gushers of blood. The people then shove the mortally wounded sharks – still alive – back into the water. The camera witnesses one’s helpless freefall to the bottom, where she comes to rest. Unable to swim, she will drown.
The cause of this bloodbath is human desire for shark fin soup, a dish that wealthy Chinese have served to honor their guests for about 150 years. But as the Chinese middle class and expatriate communities have boomed in recent decades, demand has skyrocketed.
The Bay Area has one of the largest densities of Chinese people outside of China, according to Peter Knights, founder of San Francisco-based advocacy group WildAid. For example, there are about 5,500 Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area, and many of them sell shark fin soup.
Sharks have enjoyed more than 400 million years of remarkable evolutionary success, diversifying into 440 species. But the storied predator falling prey to humans has had disastrous effect. Finning has reduced shark populations worldwide 90 percent over the last 50 years, and certain species are down 95 to 99 percent.
As apex predators, sharks have traditionally kept whole ecosystems in balance. Earlier this year, Costa Rican Randall Arauz won the Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism for fighting shark finning. On his visit to San Francisco to receive the award, he explained to me why this is so: “There’s a very important principle in ecology: biodiversity fosters biodiversity. So if we have many species of sharks, that means we’re going to have many species of animals that they prey upon. Logic would tell us that if we wipe out the sharks, hey, nothing’s going to eat the fish, and fish populations will increase. But it’s totally the contrary.”
The oceans directly off of California have not seen such wholesale ecosystem disruption because the state instituted a regulation in 1996 requiring that sharks be landed whole, in an attempt to ban the wasteful practice of dumping the rest of the animal while harvesting the more valuable fins. Since then, some countries have followed suit, and in 2007, the United Nations called on all nations of the world to institute this policy. In the United States, the Shark Conservation Act, currently under consideration in Congress, would institute the fins-attached policy nationwide.
Still, many countries and even other states along the U.S. West Coast do not have fins-attached policies or do not enforce them. Asian fishing fleets can easily move fishing operations if one area cracks down. Plus, in practice, policing fins-attached policies at sea is extremely difficult.
This global shark fin trade means that sharks fins easily enter the Bay Area for sale, even though California’s fishing policy is theoretically against the practice. To reduce similar demand, Hawaii’s legislators banned the sale of shark fin products there earlier this year, a measure that some San Francisco politicians are considering. I will report on the status of this proposal and find out what that would mean to local businesses.
Many people who eat shark fin soup have no knowledge of how fins are harvested or how shark populations are declining. WildAid has launched education campaigns in China in recent years – with some success -- using advocates like basketball star Yao Ming and film star Jackie Chan. The organization will debut a campaign in San Francisco in November.
Part of the education campaign will focus on the health hazards of eating shark. Shark fin contains high levels of methyl mercury. Mercury bioaccummulates, meaning that creatures at the top of the food chain have much higher levels than those lower down. Fins are also often bleached with industrial grade hydrogen peroxide and ammonia, which remain in the fin when it’s eaten.