Sharks: Misunderstood Caretakers of the Sea
Sharks are often misrepresented as dangerous man-eaters, but in fact they are wonderful creatures which are pivotal to the balance of the whole Earth’s ecosystem. Sharks patrol the waters, farming over populated, injured and sick fish. They are at the top of the ocean food chain but do not abuse their rank there; sharks are essential for making sure that other species survive by not being eaten by overproduced predators. Some types of shark are also responsible for patrolling the corals, controlling the population of fish that feed on this important organism. This keeps the corals alive and allows them to produce the vital contribution of oxygen that they make to the atmosphere. The ocean as a whole produces between 50-85% of the earth’s oxygen. Taking this into account it is clear that without sharks the marine circle of life would collapse and also cause significant problems outside of the ocean.
More than 70 million sharks are killed every year: Cause for celebration soup?
Unfortunately an age old tradition of eating shark fin soup, sometimes referred to as celebration soup, is quickly killing these animals. Shark fin soup was a popular delicacy originating in the Ming Dynasty in China (1300’s – 1600’s) and has grown in popularity ever since. It was once only a dish for the few upper classes, but these days many more people can afford it (prices start from 500THB up to 15,000THB). Thailand isn’t as outrageous as China for the consumption of this dish; it eats its fair share of the expensive soup, but its main offence is the killing of millions of sharks a year to satisfy the appetite of a few over-privileged diners. The irony of all this is that the soup’s flavour actually comes from chicken and pork stock (very sustainable livestock!); shark fins have neither flavour nor any health benefits, in fact they contain high levels of poisonous mercury. The fins are purely added to the soup so that restaurants can charge a fortune for it.
It’s not just the fact that the sharks are being slaughtered that is the problem, although this is the main reason why this issue is outrageous, it is also the method that is implemented for capturing sharks that is upsetting. Many boats will fish for sharks, catch them, cut the fins off and then throw them back into the sea. The sharks slowly die as they are unable to move through the water and so get eaten by predators or suffocate. This is a brutally cruel method of hunting and means that the shark is being killed for less than 5% of its body weight. Some fishermen do make full use of the whole shark body, meaning that there is no waste but this still contributes to the demise of the Shark population in areas where they are becoming scarce.
Added to the over fishing of sharks is the fact that they don’t reach sexual maturity until about 8 or 9 years old (for some species it can even be up to 15 years old) and that the gestation periods for some species can be up to 2 years. In over fished areas sharks have little-to-no opportunity of repopulating the area, meaning that the chance of sharks becoming extinct in some places is further increased.
Sharks and Tourism
What people in these fishing communities need to realise is that Sharks are worth more alive than dead. Tourism in towns situated on the shores of thriving ocean habitats is usually centred around the sea and what lies beneath, so usually around diving, as is the case in Khao Lak. Once the seas have been emptied of sharks the aquatic ecosystem will collapse: one example of this is that there will be too many coral eating fish, leading to the death of coral reefs, leading to the loss of habitat for hundreds of varieties of fish leading to an empty ocean bed. No tourist is going to pay to come and visit a large pool of water. They will, however, travel far to see vibrant underwater worlds thriving with sea life and beautiful multi-coloured corals.
Maldives Case Study
The Maldives have frequently been used as a good case study when looking into shark finning and the effects it has on tourism. Since banning shark finning the Maldives have become a sought after destination for shark lovers. Divers rate Sharks and Manta Rays above any other sea creatures as outstanding dive sightings; this means that dive destinations need to have this sea life to get put on the map. To put it into monetary terms: A dead shark, all parts sold is worth approximately $32 to the fisherman (depending on the country in which it is sold or caught). A shark alive, if basing its monetary value on sightings per dive, will bring in $3,300 per year to the tourist industry. A shark can live for up to 18 years, you do the maths.
Various countries are doing “their bit” to try and eradicate shark finning. To name a few examples:
Shark finning and shark fin soup have been banned in many cities in Canada
- Shark finning has been largely restricted and in some places banned in the United States
- Taiwan banned shark finning in 2011
- Leading Singapore supermarkets are now taking a stand against this barbaric practice by not including shark products in their stores.
These Asian commitments to the cause are notably a positive step in the right direction, but this is just a small step forward. Now is the time to become more ambitious in our fight against shark finning and stop it at the root of the problem.
Khao Lak is dependent on diving to sustain its tourist industry. It was once a small town but grew considerably due to its proximity to popular dive sites in the Andaman Sea. Now a booming tourist destination, thousands of people from around the world flock to Khao Lak each year to dive and catch a sighting of a Reef Shark, Manta Ray or Sea Turtle. Without the stunning Surin and Similan Island National Parks alive and well this tourism industry is likely to crumble away.
Get Sharks Off The Hook
We need to put pressure on local restaurants to NOT:
- Sell Shark Fin Soup
- Use any shark products on their menu
- Use sharks as display features
- We need to educate people about what will happen to the ocean, and in turn the surrounding National Parks, if all the sharks are taken out of the seas. We need to stand together to stop emptying the ocean of its beautiful and valuable sharks.
Help us to Get Sharks Off the Hook.