The Science of Sustainability

Shark Fin Trade Puts Sharks At Risk

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The growing demand for shark fin soup is helping to drive rampant illegal shark finning in international waters and the California market is contributing to this problem.

The ocean defines the San Francisco Bay culture. Our maritime heritage, our climate and our commerce are all interdependent upon the ocean and ocean resources. Fishing, whale watching, bird watching and even shark watching are important parts of our local economy and enjoyment.

The bay adjoins a National Marine Sanctuary resplendent with whales, seabirds and the white sharks that visit the Farallon Islands. Yet these and other sharks pupped in the San Francisco Bay are at risk to international fisheries. Sharks are seriously at risk in the world ocean to overfishing and the growing threat of shark finning. This is why California is taking a stand for shark conservation by proposing a bill to regulate shark fin sales. The shark fin trade is believed by many scientists to be responsible for a catastrophic collapse in the worldwide shark population.

The practice of shark finning involves cutting off the tails and fins of living sharks, which are then thrown back into the ocean to suffer and die. Shark fins are used in the delicacy shark fin soup. The growing demand for the exotic dish is helping to drive rampant illegal shark finning in international waters and the California market is contributing to this problem.

To help protect sharks, Bay Area Assemblymen Paul Fong and Jared Huffman have introduced a new bill to increase protections for sharks. This bill, AB 376, seeks to reduce the demand for shark fins by targeting the market for fins in California. Himself an Asian Pacific American, Mr. Fong grew up in Hong Kong consuming shark fin soup. After he learned of the effect it is having on the shark population, he stopped eating it. In this effort, Mr. Fong is joined by Chinese-American chefs, scientists, fishermen and conservationists in a coalition to stop the sale of shark fins in the state. Although we have laws against killing sharks solely for their fins, shark fins are imported from Ecuador, Costa Rica, Hong Kong and other countries. The shark fin sales ban will help protect sharks worldwide.

As top predators, sharks are the architects of ocean ecosystems, yet even as we are trying to study our local sharks with the California Academy of Sciences, we are losing sharks to fisheries offshore. Up to 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, with some shark populations declining by as much as 90 percent as a result. In fact DNA sequenced from fins purchased in San Francisco indicate that the fins come from sharks all over the world, over half threatened as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). One unrecognizable bag of noodles purchased was once a Great Hammerhead Shark, a species that can grow up to 18 feet and weigh 1500 pounds. Hammerheads sharks are highly coveted for soup and it has been well established that the finning industry targets these species. Perhaps 3 % of this shark made it to market if the animal was finned.

State Senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, called AB 376 an "attack on Asian culture." However a groundswell of supporters of AB 376 are Chinese, including some of the bill’s Sponsors, a group called the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance. Since the announcement, an overwhelming response has come from our local Asian community, primarily in support of the bill.

Agreeing that shark finning is wrong but calling a ban on sales extreme, Mr. Yee stated that some sharks are well populated and many can and should be sustainably fished. While there are some shark fisheries, most have collapsed after any intensive effort, and others have fewer and smaller sharks. He calls for measures already in place by the Shark Conservation Act, and to test fins at the ports: an expensive and time intensive process that is impracticable for our customs authorities. These are not viable alternatives. Due to their reproductive biology, which includes late onset of maturity, few young and long gestation periods, sharks cannot be farmed and do not stand up to a focused fishery. Fully one third of all shark species are on the IUCN Red List. Thirty are endangered and populations are decreasing for most others.

Fishing a shark population to provide fins and even meat cannot supply the world or even local demand for shark fin soup. In the 1950's, Soupfin sharks in the San Francisco Bay were fished to a state of commercial and ecological collapse. Sixty years later, this population may have just recovered from that fishery. In fact, to this day we don’t know how many Soupfin sharks live in the Bay This is not an issue of race or culture. This is an ecological imperative. Cultures evolve just as our methods of harvesting the sea must evolve. With 80% of the world’s fisheries in collapse, and sharks threatened with extinction at the current rate of fishing, we need to take drastic measures now.

Our common culture is the Ocean, a culture of all races, and the health of the oceans and fisheries are our common resource. The current market for shark fin is unsustainable and AB 376 will help reduce that demand and restore ecosystem health. San Francisco’s Ocean Culture must lead this charge for ocean health and for sharks.

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David McGuire

About the Author ()

An avid writer, surfer and ocean voyager, David McGuire is the founder of the conservation non profit Sea Stewards and is an advocate for a healthy ocean. As Captain, Dive Master and Cinematographer, David has explored the world ocean on numerous sailing voyages collecting media with an emphasis on ocean awareness.Educated in Marine Biology, he holds a masters degree in Environmental Health and has worked in education and public health at the University of California at Berkeley for over a decade. David is the writer, producer and underwater cinematographer of the award winning documentary Sharks: Stewards of the Reef, and was writer and cinematographer on a film on California Marine Protected Areas, and Palmyra Atoll. David has written, filmed and produced a new documentary on the Sharks of San Francisco Bay and has worked as cameraman on feature films such as 180 South and A Beautiful Wave. His underwater filmwork on San Francisco elasmobranches and ecosystems continues and he frequently donates his work for conservation causes. As Field and Research Associate with the California Academy of Sciences, David is Project Manager of a shark research program on the San Francisco Bay and has initiated a new sharks awareness campaign: Shark Sanctuary San Francisco. Through expedition sailing and video production, Sea Stewards is exploring and explaining our ocean world, influencing policies and practices from sustainable fishing to marine protection. Through Sea Steward Studios, our Media Production work is used to influence sound policies and sustainable ocean practices. Current work includes a series on Sea Turtle Conservation in Mexico, a film with partners Team Fish Finders using local fishermen to promote catch and release and a documentary on local sustainable seafood and a Cordell Banks Expedition.
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  • Caring Individual

    I'm gonna beat someone's bottom if this stupidity doesn't end!

  • Chris Bauer

    This past weekend I was privileged to sit on an incredible panel at the San Francisco Ocean Film festival discussing shark finning and the plight of the world’s shark populations. The news is not very good. The numbers are staggering. There are valid reports indicating 100 million sharks were taken from the world’s oceans in one year alone to feed the appetite for shark fin soup. This is not at all sustainable. Sharks are at the breaking point. And not to sound overly dramatic, if we lose our sharks, we lose our oceans.

    There is a common question I’m often asked. “How do you tell these stories without getting depressed and without depressing your audience?” I was in the middle of my standard answer during the panel when I first noticed the two young girls sitting directly in front of me. They were maybe 11 or 12 years old. One was wearing an Ocean Film Fest t-shirt. They both had glasses and slightly curly hair like my own young daughter. It stopped me in my tracks. I fumbled for my answer. And then I could barely keep it together. My voice cracked. What do I say to them? What do I say to my kids?

    I’ve seen the numbers. I’ve read the science on things such as shark finning but also climate change, ocean acidification and pollution, etc. I’ve seen the statistics about how much food the world is going to need to produces to feed the world’s enormously growing human population. I’ve seen the projections about energy and water consumption, what we have and what we’ll need. I’ve looked at the undisputable science about what we have done to this planet, what we continue to do and what it means for the future. And the news is gloomy… frightening.

    And here were these two bright eyed students, brimming with optimism, hope and potential. My eyes welled up. And I couldn’t keep it together. It was embarrassing.

    They deserve so much better.

    The California Assembly is considering legislation to protect the oceans from unsustainable fishing practices. Assembly Bill 376 is designed to help end the practice of shark finning. I will be contacting Assemblymebers Paul Fong and Jared Huffman, as well as my own representatives in the Assembly and Senate, to tell them how I feel about the passage of this bill.

    If you are a concerned citizen and also wish to contact them, to show support for the bill or contact the bill sponsors: Contact Asssemblymembers Paul Fong, and Jared Huffman-
    Assemblymember Paul Fong assemblymember.fong@assembly.ca.gov
    Assemblymember Jared Huffman assemblymember.huffman@assembly.ca.gov

    To support or contact the opposition to the position, contact
    Senator Leland Yee at Leland@LelandYee.com

    And for more information about AB 376, see:
    http://seastewards.org/tag/ab-376/

    http://www.defenders.org/resources/publications/policy_and_legislation/fact_sheet_on_bill_376.pdf

    http://baykeeper.org/blog/baykeeper-supports-ab-376-protect-sharks

  • teabox 121

    As a Chinese person born and raised in Taiwan, I need to say that eating shark fin is hardly an iconic cultural heritage. Do not let the pro-trade rhetoric fool you into thinking shark fin is to Chinese as kimchi is to Korean. Shark fin soup today is nothing but a distasteful nouveau riche "status symbol" inspired by dead Chinese emperors (who were overthrown, by the way). A growing number of Asian Americans are sick of this, please support their petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/join-the-apa-alliance-to-ban-shark-fin-in-california