The Great Shark Slaughter

Lovers of shark fin soup say it's a cultural tradition, but science proves it's brutal and inhumane.

Pacific Seafood Trading Company, in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown district, looks innocuous. Women with pink grocery bags and men pushing wire carts scurry by the corner store at 8th and Franklin streets. Inside, amid the gingko and dried roots, a pungent, earthy smell fills the air. At first glance, you’d never know that shops such as this one have become a battleground in a raging debate that pits charges of racism against animal cruelty.

But then the shark fins come into view. Dried and stacked by the hundreds in bins and baggies at the back of the store, some fins carry the blues and grays of the sea. Others have been stripped and bleached, but their spooky sleekness still calls to mind visions of the apex predator.

Across the street, a sign in the window of the New Gold Medal Restaurant advertises shark fin soup for $30 a bowl — a relative bargain. To make the delicacy, cooks soak and boil fins from Pacific Seafood Trading Company, and then strip off the threads of collagen. Shark fin soup was once a rarity reserved for the ruling classes, but as the Chinese middle class and expatriate communities have grown rapidly in the past two decades, demand for this traditional symbol of wealth has skyrocketed, as have prices.

Most of the herb shops in Chinatown feature fins tacked to the wall in bags, arranged in glass jars behind the register, or packed into plastic boxes emblazoned with the suggestion, “perfect gift.” Prices run as high as $600 a pound, with a moderately priced fin going for about $35.

On a recent weekday evening, some New Gold Medal patrons thought the soup was a bit overrated. A teenage boy said it was gelatinous, while an older woman said the soup is watered down these days, not as good as it used to be. Still, polling shows that shark fin soup is no rarity here. About two-thirds of Asian-Americans in the Bay Area say they’ve tried it, although most eat it only occasionally. Diners at New Gold Medal said it’s not an everyday food, but it makes special events special.

Oakland resident Christopher Chin used to feel the same way. When he was growing up, a wedding just wasn’t a wedding without shark fin soup, he said. But then the scuba diving instructor renounced the delicacy after experiencing an epiphany while staring into the eyes of a bull shark in Fiji. “It was like when you’re having a conversation with someone and they hold the gaze,” he recalled. “It’s a rare thing even among humans. I suddenly realized this animal was sentient.” Chin later founded Oakland’s Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, which seeks to get people to think about where their seafood comes from.

But getting shopkeepers in Oakland’s Chinatown to think about it is another matter. They’re happy to discuss soaring fin prices or their product’s medicinal and culinary value, but ask where the fins originated, and you get shrugs or vague references to Mexico or Hong Kong.

But the question of how shark fins make their way to Chinatown shops and restaurants is at the heart of a showdown that has been playing out in California since two Bay Area assemblymen introduced a bill last month that would ban the sale and import of fins.

Opponents of the proposed ban say it represents an unfair attack on Chinese-American culture and cuisine. They also contend that sharks aren’t just killed for their highly prized fins, but also for their meat. “Costco sells shark meat,” said Democratic state Senator Leland Yee at a press conference after the legislation was introduced. Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, has come out strongly against a ban. “So those sharks that come in — what are you going to do with that fin?”

But are sharks really being caught for their meat? And are shark fins just leftover byproducts that would otherwise be thrown away? According to numerous scientific studies and international trade statistics, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Records and studies definitively show that nearly all shark fins are harvested through the cruel practice of “finning,” whereby fishermen slice the fins off a sometimes still living shark and throw the body back into the ocean, where the animal bleeds out in a slow, horrible death. “When you kick sharks over the edge” of a boat, explained John McCosker, who is one of the world’s foremost shark experts and is chairman of aquatic biology for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, “they spiral downward in this death spiral and lay on the bottom until they die.”

In recent weeks, proponents of shark fin soup also have argued that the proposed California ban would unfairly harm legitimate fishermen who do not kill sharks solely for their highly prized fins. They contend that governments just need to do a better job at patrolling the seas and enforcing existing bans that make it illegal to harvest shark fins and throw what’s left of the fish overboard.

But the worlds’ oceans are vast, of course, and international trade data and scientific studies show that various fishing bans around the globe have done little to slow the burgeoning shark fin trade. Instead, the bans have spawned massive amounts of illegal finning that goes undetected by authorities.

As a result, experts say, the only effective way to curtail the worldwide slaughter of sharks is for governments to ban the actual sale and import of their fins. And such a ban in California, because of its huge market, could reverberate around the nation and the globe.

In the Pacific Ocean, longliner boats typically fish for tuna or swordfish, not shark. Boat crews spend weeks on the high seas, setting out fifty miles of line at night with baited hooks every 200 feet. As the boat begins to move, a reel that resembles a massive cotton spool pulls the line in. The crew checks the hooks as they pass by, tossing tuna into the hull and “bycatch,” such as drowned turtles and birds, back into the sea.

Hooked sharks present a more complicated task. The crew usually lops off the four valuable fins and part of the tail, then throws the animal overboard, all before the next hook comes in. If the shark is alive, they strike it with a quick blow to the spinal column. But in the assembly-line rush, they do not always aim correctly. Often, the animal is hacked apart as it thrashes, and then is plunged back into the water to bleed to death on the ocean floor.

In many ways, sharks are victims of their own evolutionary success. Thanks to their incredibly sensitive sense of smell, these predators can hone in on baited hooks from miles away. According to a 2006 study published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters that is widely viewed as the definitive count of shark fins in the global market, 23 to 73 million sharks are killed annually to supply the fin trade.

For longliners, about 95 percent of a shark’s carcass is trash — not worth the effort or the space it would occupy in the ship’s hull. Why? Shark meat is suffused with urea. A primeval animal with a primitive kidney system, sharks carry urine in their blood. McCosker explained that if the animal is not bled out, gutted, and frozen shortly after death, it becomes impossible to clean.

And even if fishermen go through the hassle of properly cleaning shark meat, it’s essentially worthless on the global market. In 2006, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency — a fishery management group — concluded: “Fins are by far the most valuable part of the shark. Low prices or non-existent markets for shark meat discourage further retention.”

Indeed, shark meat exported from the United States goes for only $1 a pound — fifty times less than shark fin. “Even if markets could be found for shark meat,” the Fisheries Agency report continued, “certain biological characteristics make it unlikely that [commercial] vessels would take the time to properly handle and store sharks caught.”

Sharks meat, in other words, just isn’t worth it for most fishermen. In fact, Costco — contrary to Yee’s claim — stopped carrying shark meat years ago because of lack of demand, according to the chain’s US seafood buyer. More recently, the chain agreed not to carry shark or a host of other threatened fish in the future because of environmental concerns. Safeway and other major supermarket chains do not carry the meat for similar reasons. Berkeley Bowl sometimes sells mako shark for $7.49 a pound, but the store has trouble maintaining a consistent inventory.

Fins, by contrast, are highly valuable, and because they can be air-dried on the ship’s rigging and stored compactly, they’re essentially free money. “Because there’s such a high profit margin,” Chin noted, “fishermen would be fools not to take the fins.”‘

Typically, when the longline boat docks, the captain distributes the fins among the crew as a bonus. Dealers buy them at port with cash in hand, and send them in crates to Hong Kong for processing. Once they are packaged for trade, the fins are shipped around the world.

Environmentalists recognize that longlining, popularized in the 1970s, is here to stay. But they would like longline fishermen to tie their hooks with nylon, which only sharks can bite through, or to stop setting lines at night, when sharks feed. As long as sharks keep getting hooked, their fins will be hacked off and their bodies discarded to save space for more valuable catch.

In fact, the evidence of the brutal shark fin trade is overwhelming. According to the most recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, published in 2005, of all sharks reeled in at sea, more than 92 percent are ultimately thrown overboard. The discard rate for sharks is more than ten times higher than the rate for marine life as a whole.

A study from Imperial College London found that even when sharks are not finned and tossed overboard, much of their meat goes to waste. The study compared the weight of all shark carcasses brought in from sea annually to the weight of all shark products sold on the global market each year. Although researchers found evidence that there has been some increase in worldwide shark meat consumption over the last several decades, they concluded that at least two-thirds of viable shark meat that comes into port never reaches the marketplace.

In addition, a 2006 Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency that involved scientific observers on longline fishing boats in the tropics found that between 59 and 76 percent of the sharks captured were finned. The deeper the line, the more likely that sharks were hooked, had their fins hacked off, and then were dumped back in the ocean to die.

Another 2006 study of the eastern Pacific Ocean found that 85 percent of total shark and ray catch was discarded. Blue sharks made up 89 percent of the total shark catch. All of them were finned. 

And a 1999 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations looked at finning rates in the Pacific Ocean, also based on observer data. The most common catch was blue shark, and 85 percent of them were finned. Of the silky sharks captured, 48 percent were finned. And of the whitetip sharks caught, 62 percent were finned.

In short, study after study has come to the same conclusion: Sharks aren’t caught for their meat. They’re hacked apart so that people can sip expensive soup.

Still, for many in the Bay Area’s Asian-American community, a proposed ban on the sale and import of shark fins is viewed as a cultural — even racist — attack. The problem, they say, is not their age-old tradition of enjoying shark fin soup, but widespread illegal fishing practices.

Chinese-American market and restaurant owners have joined forces with fishermen and seafood processors to paint the proposed ban, which resembles a Hawaii law passed last spring, as discriminatory and unnecessary. Selina Low, a manager at East Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Alameda, echoed the common refrain that plenty of shark meat is sold in the Bay Area, and not all fins are derived from illegal practices. “The poachers are giving restaurants a bad reputation,” she said. “If you outlaw shark fins, you might as well ban chicken, pork, and beef.”

Taylor Chow, owner of American Tai Wah Trading Corporation in Oakland and spokesman for the Oriental Food Association, stakes out a similar position. “We have no reason to be ashamed about our shark fin-using culture,” he said. “About a thousand years ago, the Chinese already knew to use every single part of the shark, including shark fin, which in other places is regarded as scrap.”

San Francisco fin processor Michael Kwong argues that, instead of pushing for bans, environmentalists should help the state crack down on suppliers who break domestic laws. Kwong’s family has been involved with what he calls “the craft of fin production” since 1967, operating as the Hop Woo Company. Turned off by the headache of dealing with importing, Kwong gets only about 15 percent of his stock from the shark fin mecca of Hong Kong. The rest comes from East Coast and Gulf of Mexico fishermen who land sharks with their fins attached. The price is higher, he said, but it’s worth it to save himself customs delays. After he takes the fins, the shark’s meat is used for such things as fish food, while the creatures’ jaws are sold at tourist shops.

Last month, Kwong stood with Senator Yee and denounced the proposed California ban on the sale and import of shark fins, arguing that it punishes those who derive most of their product from sustainable sources and unfairly targets Asians. As for the fraction of his fins that come from Hong Kong, Kwong condemned the practice of finning, but said there wasn’t much he could do: “I don’t own the boat; I can’t control someone that’s two hundred miles out.”

But seafood businesses like Kwong’s are not the norm in California, and laws around the globe that ban finning — but not the sale of shark fins — have proven to be mostly futile. According to UN figures, the number of shark fins sold worldwide exploded in the past two decades. In 1985, international seafood markets reported exporting 2,699 metric tons of shark fins. By 1999, exports had grown by 76 percent to 4,763 metric tons. By 2004, they had shot up to 6,220 metric tons. In two decades, the international shark fin market skyrocketed by more than 130 percent.

The Galapagos Marine Reserve, a world heritage site, is often cited as an example of the difficulty of implementing bans on finning. Officials there have seized up to 10,000 fins at a time, and have even caught poachers using endangered Galapagos sea lions and dolphins as bait. Peter Knights, a shark expert who founded the San Francisco environmental group WildAid, said trained sniffer dogs uncovered a new cache of fins poached from the Galapagos reserve just last month.

Finning is especially common in legally protected areas, Knights said, because it’s too risky for fishermen to keep whole sharks on their boats. The bans on fishing in reserves, in other words, offer no incentive for fishermen to catch sharks and then sell their meat in a sustainable way. Instead, fishermen use small boats to quickly nab hundreds of sharks in a short period of time, hack off their fins, and throw the bulky carcasses back in the ocean — effectively fishing out the entire area without arousing suspicion. “Less than one percent of ocean is marine reserve, but they still go there,” Knights said of the appeal that reserves hold for shark finners.

Knights was one of the first to catch on to the large-scale decimation of sharks. Raised in England and educated at the London School of Economics, Knights could be described as the Indiana Jones of the preservationist world. He honed his eco-warrior skills working as an undercover ecological investigator, infiltrating local crime rings to uncover trade in illegal wildlife products such as bear bile and rhino horns.

In 1997, he was scoping out a Taiwan marina for evidence of dolphin killing when he stumbled upon an entire dock covered with hundreds and hundreds of six-inch fins drying in the sun. “I thought, how on earth can this be sustainable?” he said. Three years later, Knights cofounded WildAid, a group that aims to curb the shark trade worldwide.

Knights argues that bans on finning just aren’t enough. For example, after the enactment of a shark-finning ban in Hawaii in the summer of 2001, there was a 54 percent decline in US fin imports via Hong Kong. But without a corresponding drop in demand, this blow to a specific supply chain had little effect. The international fin trade has only grown in the years since, and the central Pacific continues to be a hot spot for the shark trade.

In the United States, federal law prohibits bringing sharks onshore without their fins attached, but a loophole allows the import of fins from countries that permit finning. With AB 376, Democratic state Assemblymen Paul Fong of Cupertino and Jared Huffman of San Rafael aim to strike a blow to the supply chain and consumer demand by completely banning the sale and import of shark fins in California.

Such a ban also could help turn the tide against shark finning throughout the nation and the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, San Diego and Los Angeles are the two top entry points for shark fins in the United States.

But AB 376 could face stiff opposition from conservative Republicans in Sacramento. A spokesman for Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of Stockton, who sits on the committee that will hear the bill, suggested that it might place undue restrictions on local sport fishermen. “It could be unconstitutional, frankly,” he said.

Environmentalists concede that fishermen who bring in sharks with fins attached do far less harm than those who strip-mine habitats by hacking sharks to death. But the only way to keep illegally or unethically obtained fins out of local Chinatowns, they say, is to impose a blanket ban.

For many years, the ecological consequences of the hyper-efficient, mostly unregulated shark hunt went unnoticed. While many fish have been protected for decades, sharks, who live a migratory life far from shore, were not closely monitored until recently. Scientists now know that despite their fearsome reputations, sharks are an ecologically weak species.

While most fish reproduce quickly and in great numbers, sharks, who can live as long as humans, take years to reach sexual maturity, and gestate their young for up to two years. Forty years after the rise of longlining, one third of sharks, rays, and skates are threatened with extinction, and as many as 90 percent of sharks in the world’s open oceans have disappeared, according to research published in the scientific journal Nature.

International laws protect only three species of shark. Great white, basking, and whale sharks come under the jurisdiction of the same UN body that protects tigers and giant pandas. Last year, eight additional shark species were put before the body to be considered for protection. None were accepted.

A decade ago, there also was no way to determine whether a dried fin came from a protected shark species. But, today, advances in DNA testing have made some monitoring possible. The technique was devised after federal agents spotted a suspicious bag on a routine visit to a seafood dealer. The large nylon sack destined for Asia was labeled “porbeagle” shark. But inside, agents found a hidden label that read “blanco” — white. Could the fins have been from great white sharks, the agents wondered? The DNA confirmed their fears. The fins came from 21 sharks, all great whites — mostly pups.

Authorities discovered the cache in New York, but there’s no reason to think that Bay Area fins come from shark species that are more abundant than great whites. The Hamilton Lab at the California Academy of Sciences ran DNA tests on fins picked up in San Francisco’s Chinatown this year and found that over half of the sample came from sharks recognized as “vulnerable.”

Scientists also say the ancient predator’s increasing absence from the world’s oceans is beginning to manifest itself in ecological imbalances. McCosker of the Academy of Sciences is concerned about the potential widespread impacts of shark finning. “I’m more worried about the health of the ocean, which is also in a downward spiral,” he said.

For Christopher Chin, the key to ending the fin trade in California lies in spreading the sense of empathy with sharks that he discovered when coming face to face with one in Fiji. He is mostly optimistic. After all, Americans used to think of whales as man-eating monsters. Just look at Moby Dick. And elephants kill more people annually than sharks, yet ivory poachers are universally reviled.

“Sharks aren’t huggable like pandas,” McCosker noted. “But they’re way cool.”

Still, Chin is worried by the attitude he sees at the Berkeley Marina, where fishermen take trophy photos and sometimes pretend to kick their shark catches. And he is also troubled by what he sees as widespread — possibly willful — ignorance of where shark fins come from.

In any case, he believes that in the not-so-distant future, fins will disappear from Chinatown shops and restaurants. “The question,” he said, “is only whether it happens before we run out of sharks.”


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