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  • Writer's pictureBeth Matlock

Scrapping traditions

Sometimes marine-related topics are not about interesting-looking organisms or unique species that can kill with a sting. Some topics are controversial and often difficult to talk about. It's important to provide the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to educating people about current issues happening in our oceans today.

Why does shark finning occur?

The topic in question is a practice that dates back 1,000 years and is the most prominent in Asian cultures, primarily Chinese cultures. The act of shark finning in order to make dishes such as shark-fin soup is decades old and was once only a delicacy consumed by the Chinese aristocracy. Back then, the consumption of this soup showed you were of higher social standing.

Now, traditions are not all bad. However, those that harm an apex predator that is vital to the running of ocean ecosystems seems controversial. This particular practice has led to the slaughter of an estimated 73 million sharks per year. It puts into question why such a dish is admired so much. In fact, the soup has been described as "tasteless" unless accompanied with chicken flavouring to improve the taste, so why eat it?

As with a lot of things around the world, it sometimes comes down to money. In recent years the demand for shark-fin soup has increased dramatically - sometimes a bowl of this soup can cost the eater up to $100 per bowl. This price seems extortionate considering the taste, however, due to the increase in the Chinese economy many more people are able to afford this delicacy. Due to its reputation, many more people are demanding it when eating out, so as to be seen as having a higher social standing. It would be seen as the eastern equivalent to caviar, whereby only the most wealthy can afford to eat it.

Why should we care?

Across many cultures around the world, sharks have a bad reputation as they are seen as dangerous predators. However, did you know that in 2021, there were only 9 fatal shark encounters worldwide? Does that excuse the unlawful killing of nearly 100 million sharks worldwide every year? Often the sharks used for the shark-fin soup are killed in the most brutal way. Only the fins are used for this dish and the rest of the shark is discarded back into the ocean, still alive, left to slowly die.

Not only is the killing brutal but it is also unsustainable. Sharks are fast becoming endangered species, due to their reproductive biology they are only able to reproduce every 2-3 years. So if humans are removing 100 million sharks from the oceans every year, how long do we think this will last before they become extinct? Shark-fin soup is not the only problem associated with the hunting of sharks. Sharks are also hunted for their meat, leather and health supplements worldwide.

Sharks are apex predators, meaning they have very few natural predators, the main one being humans. They play a vital role within our oceans ecosystems. Take coral reefs as an example, without the presence of sharks, smaller predators become more abundant. These predators often hunt herbivorous fish (eat vegetation only), this then leads to a build-up of algae and seaweed. A build-up of vegetation quickly takes over the reef and decreases coral growth, eventually leading to the degradation of coral reefs.

Not many people would believe me if I said that sharks also play key roles in mitigating climate change...Well, it is true, their presence alone alters the behaviour of grazers that feed on seagrass, such as turtles. By reducing grazing habits more seagrass is able to grow and absorb more carbon. Therefore, reducing the number of harmful greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere.

It is often the case that different species have an untold effect on the environment around us. Sometimes ignorance or lack of understanding can lead to the devastation of a key organism of an oceans ecosystem. Laws have been put in place to protect sharks around the world, namely, the US Shark Conservation Act 2010. This requires that sharks be bought ashore with their fins still intact. Although this is not stopping the problem, it allows monitoring efforts and will reduce overexploitation of endangered species.

Obviously more needs to be done. In recent years the Chinese government banned the serving of shark-fin soup at official functions. However, different countries are finding new dishes using shark meat. Legislation for shark fins alone is not going to be enough to stop this trade. The popularity of this dish is based solely on social attitudes, if these change then the killing of sharks may reduce. What other measures could be put in place? Let me know your views on this topic...

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