In recent years, humans have become the top predators of the ocean, hunting shark populations into rapid decline on a global scale and near extinction. This is done through a process called shark-finning, a pretty straightforward term for exactly what is happening to these poor creatures.
After the fins are cut off of a shark, it is thrown back into the water still alive, and sinks to the bottom where it will die since it can’t continue to swim. Its a monstrosity of abuse and inhumane action.
Sharks are able to stable their buoyancy through their pectoral fins, oily livers, and the shape of their powerful tails. The aerodynamics of their caudal fin forces their bodies downward in water, while their pectoral fins act as wings to lift them back up. Using these adaptations specialized for their lifestyle in water, as well as their extremely oily livers, sharks are able to manage their buoyancy and stay alive.
When sharks are finned, they can no longer move forward, and end up dying on the ocean floor as other fish come along to eat them. Although they are in water, their gills require a flow of water over them, which sharks usually handle with ram ventilation and their movement through the ocean. Now, they are unable to breathe and only go through what I can only assume is an excruciatingly painful drowning and death (sometimes due to blood loss as well).
The reasons for the temptations of shark fin are due to their monetary value and popularity as a luxury dish in Chinese culture. Shark fin soup is a “symbol of status” (ocean.si.edu) and proves human predatory power over these brilliant animals. Its a custom to have shark fin soup at official ceremonies, banquets, and family celebrations. A shark fin can sell for up to $500 a pound, whereas a sharks total lifetime worth is around $1.6 million…only to be chopped up into a cup for a bowl of soup.
The numbers are astounding: as many as “73 million sharks end up in the global shark fin trade every year,” (usa.oceana.org). And it doesn’t stop there, sharks are “K-selected” species, meaning they are slow to reproduce, live long lives, and have a higher potential of going extinct. “Today, some shark populations have decreased by 60-70% due to human shark fisheries,” (ocean.si.edu). This has resulted in 18 species of sharks being listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (sea shepherd.org). This is action that can all be prevented and there are other solutions we can set forth in order to harvest these animals in a sustainable, humane way.
These actions therefore cause even greater distress on whole populations; as shark (predator) rates decrease, rays (prey) populations increase. In turn, rays eat more and more of their diets (scallops, clams, bivalves) and this causes a ripple effect which leads all the way back to the autotrophs of the ecosystem.
Fortunately, some progress has been made. In June of 2016, the United States initiated the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act, making it illegal to trade shark fins. Even with this banning, there is still buying and selling of the fins throughout the U.S., but work is being done to make this problem more prominent. In 22 countries there have been domestic regulations on shark finning and “China [has been working] to decrease the cultural value of fins, [with] the Chinese government prohibiting the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets in 2012,” (ocean.si.edu). Its a slow start, but a start nonetheless.
Some solutions to shark finning consist of capturing sharks whole, taking them to land, and using their entire body so none goes to waste, increasing shark fin regulations and banning, lowering the number of fishermen and hunting licenses for sharks in the oceans (although this may have a negative effect due to money hunting brings in for wildlife through licenses, etc), and educating yourself on the dangers of shark-finning. Much like the ivory trade, it is something so developed into culture and a status of wealth that it is hard to slow down until it is too late. Tolls are already being taken on shark populations and we need to implement this knowledge into our actions as human beings.
For now, all I can do is spread awareness. But this is what I will devote my life to, becoming a wildlife biologist and conserving, sustaining, and managing species, populations, and ecosystems. I will make a difference, no matter how small, and it will be the greatest thing I ever do.