On a recent trip to Bangkok, I make a visit to the Shark Fin Soup restaurant to take a look look at my first bowl.
There wasn’t much to see. The spacious restaurant, situated in the midst of a bustling market, was completely empty and the wait staff greeted me half-bored in their chairs outside the front door.
We can only hope that recent efforts by the United Nations, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the US to ban the shameful practice of cutting off shark fins to feed wealthy patrons of this high priced and nutritionally empty luxury will keep many more such restaurants empty.
Using data supplied by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, we recently reported that shallow longline fishing captures and kills about 4.4 million sharks, seabirds, billfish, marine mammals and sea turtles each year in the Pacific Ocean. Sharks make up more than two-thirds of this total.
What few realize is that the problem of shark finning is really the problem of industrial high seas longline fishing in which monofilament lines stretching as far as 60 miles are lined with thousands of baited hooks.
Two recent scientific studies have warned that top of the food chain predators such as sharks have declined by as much as 90 to 99% in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Since the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently warned that about 70% of our global fisheries are near full capacity, at full capacity or already over-depleted, one of the few remaining “big fish” around to be hooked on longlines are sharks.
Alongside sharks, leatherback sea turtles have also been driven to the precipice of extinction by longline fishing. Female nesting leatherbacks have declined by 95% in the Pacific since 1980. Scientists have warned that the leatherback could go extinct in the next 5-30 years unless the threat of longlines is significantly reduced. Longlines also pose a significant threat to the survival of the black-footed albatross seabird in the Pacific.
Because there is little demand for shark meat, the lucrative demand for shark fins has propelled sharks, the most “abundant” catch by longline fisheries, into the spotlight. This recent global market opportunity has turned a once “trash” fish that has been a nuisance to both target fish and fishermen into the primary motivation for longlining.
Pull away the veneer from global fisheries most at risk, and one will find illicit shark fin fisheries posing as swordfish, tuna and billfish fisheries. The Sea of Cortez, once teaming with incredible life once chronicled by novelist John Steinbeck, is rapidly becoming a biological wasteland. Many longline vessels licensed for some depleted billfish are in actuality targeting sharks.
An international chorus is attempting to reverse the pillaging of our ocean that is driving sharks, the leatherback and the black-footed albatross to the brink of extinction. Last month, the UN General Assembly strengthened the language of a resolution it passed in 2003, this time calling on nations to ban shark finning fisheries. Days later, about 60 countries belonging to the regional fisheries organization for the Atlantic tuna fishery, ICCAT, joined the US in calling for a ban on shark finning. The same week, the World Conservation Union also announced it support for a global ban on shark finning. The US itself took the first step by banning the wasteful practice in the late 1990s. Our organization has also been engaged in an effort to ban the landing of shark fins in Costa Rica by Taiwanese vessels. Another NGO is also carrying on a campaign in Asia.
Banning finning is a courageous first step to protecting endangered sharks but without efforts to inform consumers about the need to end the consumption of fins and put a halt to the technique of longline fishing, millions of more animals will die each year in the Pacific and globally.
Nearly 700 international scientists, among them the famed biologist E.O Wilson, primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, from 54 countries have called on the UN to implement a moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific.
If we are to save sharks, the leatherback and the black-footed albatross from extinction, we need to heed their call and stop longline fishing long enough for there to be something other than sharks to catch.