Sharks threatened by kitchen predator

Conservationists have fought long and hard battles to save species such as elephants, the rhino, the giant panda, dolphins and whales.

Now marine scientists and conservationists face one of their biggest challenges – saving the ocean’s sharks.

After visiting a clothing factory in China, Linda Grobbler, a fabric technologist from Cape Town, and her colleagues were invited to lunch at a restaurant in downtown Hong Kong.

As is customary, her Chinese hosts ordered the food. Grobbler was curious about the first course – seafood soup. She asked her Chinese hosts about the ingredients and was told that it was shark fin and abalone soup.

“I was so mad I nearly threw my bowl at our hosts,” said Grobbler, “Out of politeness to them I made an excuse that I couldn’t eat seafood.”

A Capetonian who lives close to the sea, Grobbler enjoys seafood but is aware of the tragic decline in fish stocks. “I know how threatened sharks are because of shark fin soup. To top it all they served it with abalone which has been all but wiped out in the Western Cape.”

Marine biologists have warned for many years that shark populations are in danger. But in the past year an ever-increasing number of respected international conservation bodies have placed sharks on their threatened species list. Conservationists are also worried that the decimation of sharks as apex predators, could destroy reef ecosystems, obliterating other marine life.

The shark fin trade is feeding the hungry Asian appetite for shark fin soup. Asia is the largest market as incomes have risen in fast-growing China. It’s created a global business worth at least $1 billion a year. A bowl of shark fin soup can sell for more than $150 in top Chinese restaurants. Dried fins fetch up to $800 a kilo in Hong Kong, hub of the global trade.

Sharks have survived the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years. In recent times, mass hysteria caused by the film Jaws, led to fear and hatred of sharks with huge numbers hunted and killed.

Sharks are under greater threat now. Dr Len Compagno of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, and regional vice chairman for the Southern Africa region of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN), a shark expert and marine scientist, says the impact of finning is disturbing. “Some large shark populations have plunged to 5% of their original size,” he says. “The bitter end is already here.”

Fishermen who catch sharks for their fins toss the shark overboard, its body wriggling to a deep ocean-floor grave. Conservationists say it’s an animal rights and moral issue that their fins are chopped off while the creature is still alive.

American scientist Dr Shelley Clarke, visiting researcher at Imperial College, London, has worked with shark traders in Hong Kong to obtain estimates of sharks caught worldwide. She’s calculated that between 26 million and 73 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. Her best estimate is 38 million. “This is a minimum estimate since some sharks that are caught don’t make it into the fin trade,” she says.

She says the often-quoted 100-million-sharks-a-year figure is too high as it includes all elasmo branches – sharks, skates and rays. “Sharks comprise only 60% of this number.”

Shark finning is cloaked in underworld trade, linked to Chinese Triad gangs. Peter Gastrow, a local securities studies expert, highlighted the involvement of the Chinese Triad gangs in a 2001 report showing that shark fins were exported by Chinese-linked groups to Hong Kong.

It’s risky to delve too closely. Nan Rice, founder and director of the Dolphin Action Group and pioneer marine activist in Cape Town, had to stop research on shark finning. “It became too dangerous for our researcher.”