A new fight to help sharks keep their fins

A new fight to help sharks keep their fins


Saturday, October 08, 2011

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"Food comes first, then morals." - Bertolt Brecht, from The Threepenny Opera.

FOOD, as we all know, is that vital ingredient of life - the fuel which powers our bodies and the building material which causes the body to grow and to repair it as it gets damaged or worn out. But human beings have elevated certain foods from that practical and everyday function to a higher level where they take on additional value as cultural or religious icons or as status symbols because they are rare or difficult to obtain.

For some French people, truffles are the epitome of food to be celebrated. Truffles are actually a fungus which grows on the roots of certain oak trees. This coveted mushroom is harvested with the aid of pigs or dogs trained to use their superior sense of smell to ferret it out under a layer of soil. Thus it is rare and consequently fetches high prices on the market, even though the taste may not be all that spectacular.

Many people around the world eat roe, which is a mass of fish eggs, but Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran produce black caviar, the roe of certain varieties of sturgeon native to the Caspian and Black seas. Sturgeon are big fish which take years to grow to the size of a man, and their roe is ripped out of fertile females, washed in brine and packaged for sale in the gourmet markets of the world. Caviar is rare and therefore extremely expensive, with some prized Iranian categories fetching as much as 12,000 Euros per kilogram.

There is a variety of coffee known as Kopi Luwak which grows in Indonesia and which fetches really high prices in the fancy coffee houses of the US, Europe and elsewhere. The trees grow in the shade of the jungle and an animal known as the civet cat loves to eat the reddest, ripest beans. It digests the sweet flesh around the seeds, which then pass undigested through its alimentary canal. Reapers patrol the undergrowth and pick up the seeds, which are then roasted and ground in the usual fashion. These beans, much favoured by the trendy set, can easily fetch US$100 a pound in San Francisco.

The Chinese have got to be the world's leaders in elevating marginal food items to celebrity status, largely because of the rareness factor. We know about bird nest soup, made from the nest of a type of swift which lives in caves. During the mating season the male bird uses its saliva to construct a nest, which resembles a shallow plastic half-cup stuck to the cave wall.

Bird nest soup is a special item on the menu of Chinese restaurants around the world, but it's one of the most expensive items, fetching as much as US$100 a bowl in some of the most fancy eateries. By itself the soup is extremely bland and chefs make it attractive by adding traditional flavourings. And, like bird nest soup, the more upscale Chinese restaurants traditionally offer shark fin soup, particularly for special occasions like weddings and other ceremonial events. Shark fins have no taste of their own and the broth is flavoured with chicken or other stock. The fin's main contribution is its texture - fibrous or gelatinous.

Serving shark fin soup goes back to the Ming Dynasty. Emperors craved it as a delicacy because it was rare and required elaborate preparation, and as living standards improved in the 18th and 19th centuries, its popularity exploded. Nowadays families putting on ceremonial dinners, or business figures anxious to impress prospective partners or customers, feel obliged to serve the fancied dish to demonstrate power, prestige, wealth and honour. In Hong Kong - one of the centres of the shark fin trade, a bowl of soup can cost the diner US$200 a bowl or the retail buyer $1600 or more per kilogram.

The trouble is that the fin supplies very little in the way of nutrients and in fact, can be quite harmful if eaten regularly. The shark lives a long time and is at the top of the food chain. This means that it accumulates poisons in its body. Scientists have found that shark fins contain high levels of mercury and other heavy metals which can be very harmful or even fatal to someone who ingests enough of it.

It is also an enormously destructive practice, since, for the most part, the people who go after shark fins catch the fish, hack off the pectoral and dorsal fins, and then throw the shark back into the water. Without fins the shark cannot swim and suffers a slow and painful death from suffocation. Unlike smaller fish, sharks cannot flap their gills and therefore breathe by swimming constantly to force water through their mouths and across the fixed gills.

Unlike other big sea creatures like tuna, swordfish or marlin, shark meat doesn't fetch attractive prices, so the fin hunters prefer to throw the sharks overboard and save their hold space for more profitable species. It's been estimated that around 73 million sharks are killed each year in the shark-fin trade. These fish, which have been swimming in the earth's waters since the time of the dinosaurs, mature late and reproduce very slowly. Therefore, they cannot survive much longer in the face of this kind of assault.

But all is not lost. There is a growing worldwide movement against shark finning, as this barbaric practice is known. For instance, four states in the United States and three American possessions have banned the sale and consumption of shark fins. In Canada, the city of Toronto is about to consider such a ban and an opposition Member of Parliament in Ottawa is seeking a national ban. Several countries - including Honduras and the Bahamas in the western hemisphere, the Maldive islands in the Indian Ocean together with Palau, the northern Mariana islands, Guam, the Marshall Islands and Tokelau in the western Pacific - have already taken measures to save the sharks.

The Marshall Islands are the latest to initiate a ban on the practice. Although very small themselves, the islands are strewn across almost two million square kilometres of the Pacific, which constitutes a shark preserve. For the islands, which have few natural resources, sharks are a vital part of the tourism on which they depend. Anyone caught fishing for sharks or possessing shark fins within the prohibited area can be subject to a fine of as much as US$200,000. Palau is a group of startlingly beautiful islands which provide some of the world's best diving, and experts say that one reef shark can bring in almost US$ 2 million in tourism income over the course of its lifetime.

Pressure is growing for the Chinese government to take action to stop the practice. Advocates for an end to shark finning say laws are the only effective way to stop it. But many say trying to stop the shark-fin trade amounts to insensitivity to a centuries-old Chinese cultural tradition and would be almost impossible to root out anyway. Others note that modern pressures have attacked the age-old Chinese behaviour of spitting in public with considerable success, and that upon seizing power, Mao Zedong decreed an end to the age-old, painful and disfiguring practice of foot-binding of women and exhorted men to chop off their pigtails, an old sign of subservience.


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