Have you heard of cat-paw potage—the costly delicacy made by trapping servals, caracals, cheetahs, leopards, cougars, lynxes, bobcats, jaguars, jaguarundis, and ocelots, slicing off their paws (sometimes when they’re still alive), and leaving or landfilling everything that remains?
No, because it doesn’t exist. Nor could it. Civilized people wouldn’t stand for it. Yet most fishing nations, including the United States, tolerate or promote the exact analogue at sea, in which sharks are separated from their fins and, because shark meat is difficult to preserve, usually discarded. Killing sharks takes some doing, so they’re often tossed overboard alive. They tend to wriggle along the bottom until they starve or, if they’re lucky, drown or bleed to death. Finless sharks have been caught on cut bait, the only thing they can chase down.
Severed fins are dried and used in shark-fin soup, a traditional Asian dish served to signal wealth and celebrate lofty occasions. You can buy a single whale shark fin for $15,000 in some Asian markets. A bowl of soup costs about $100, and you won’t be able to taste the fins. Basically noodles made of protein, they merely absorb the flavor of other ingredients.
Like cats, most sharks caught commercially are apex predators. Sharks don’t reproduce much faster than cats. Their litter sizes are roughly the same; their gestation periods are comparable or longer; and they don’t reach sexual maturity as quickly. Embryos of the depleted sand tiger shark swim freely in each of two uteri, attacking and consuming siblings until only two survive. The grievously imperiled sandbar shark delivers eight or nine pups every other year. Duskies, in no better shape, are thought to reproduce every third year.
But unlike cats, sharks lack fur, and—with the exception of the fast swimmers, such as salmon sharks, porbeagles, makos, and great whites—they’re cold-blooded. So sharks, along with their cousins the batoids (rays, skates, sawfishes, and guitarfishes), tend to be unloved and unappreciated by humans. We hate sharks for the same reason we hate wolves—because we believe the superstitions about them and because they eat things we want to eat. But that hatred and fear also creates fascination, which can lead to study, understanding, and appreciation. In this regard (and as a foil for natural history reporting), I believe the 1975 movie Jaws has helped sharks more than it has hurt them.
I spend quality time with sharks, and while I occasionally swear at them, I love and respect them. March 28, 2008: I am 65 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico with my friend and guide Steve Rodger, fighting a 30-pound blackfin tuna on a 12-weight flyrod for half an hour. I have it beat; it circles a rod-length out, bronze flank flashing. I’m thinking sushi—but so is the bull shark that surfaces like a submarine, rocking the boat. I reel in the tuna’s lips. The shark lingers brazenly, shaking her meal. She is beautiful—sleek and hard like all sharks in their element. Out of their element—especially when hoisted for display at fishing tournaments—they bulge and sag grotesquely because they have no bones; they’re framed on cartilage. Tuna are faster than almost anything that swims, and about the only chance a shark of any species gets to eat one is when it’s struggling on the end of an angler’s line. She needed the sushi more than I did.
Master guide and raconteur Carl Moxey has taught me much about Caribbean fishes. But, like many Bahamians, he is rife with shark fear and fancy. He thinks they’ll bite you if you wade among them. My wife, Donna, and I are in his skiff approaching a sand spit in the vast bluewater between Andros Island and Cuba. “You see all dat black,” says Moxey casually. “Dat’s all bonefishes. Stay in the boat till the tide fall.” The black is the shadows cast by the iridescent-silver fish. They’re being pushed from deep water by at least 200 lemon sharks. Geysers erupt all around us. Dark dorsal fins and golden backs cleave the flat at appalling speed, sending bonefish into the air like welding sparks. I can’t stand the wait. I grab my flyrod and slog out into the spiraling galaxy of bonefish, hooking one on every cast. Each vanishes in an explosion of spray and gore. The feeding frenzy intensifies, clouding the water with silt and blood. Now there really is a chance of getting bitten, though it would be a mistake on the shark’s part. Eventually I land an intact bonefish. But when I release it a shark rushes in and takes it at my feet, brushing my left knee and sending me sprinting backward into the boat. “You crazy, mon,” intones Moxey.
On our way back to the spike camp on Water Cay we encounter a great hammerhead. The “hammer” on this and related species is an elaborate bioelectric sensory device for homing in on prey, even when it’s buried in sand. Thresher sharks herd fish with tails as long as their bodies. Tiger sharks are fond of sea turtles. Great whites dine on seals and sea lions. Some sharks glow in the dark. Bull sharks can live in freshwater lakes. Hooked makos are apt to leap over or into your boat.
The diversity (not number of species) of sharks and batoids rivals the diversity of birds, but we are losing it much faster. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lacks data to determine the status for almost all known species. Of the remainder, 37 percent are listed as threatened, 23 percent as vulnerable, 9 percent as endangered, and 5 percent as critically endangered.
For centuries sharks had been killed more or less sustainably for their meat, fins, skin, cartilage, and liver. But the economic boom in China and other East Asian nations has created the current global crisis. Before the late 1980s most Asians couldn’t afford shark-fin soup.
According to the best data, fins from 26 million to 73 million sharks are annually traded on the global market. With true sharks harder to come by, rays (which can be thought of as sharks whose pectoral fins have transformed to “wings”) and sawfishes are also being depleted for shark-fin soup. Extinction caused by human exploitation has yet to be documented in marine fishes. But without drastic national and international reform, it now appears possible for dozens of shark and batoid species.
Even in the early 1980s scientists were seeing major shark declines along our Atlantic Coast. The reason: dead-on-the dock fishing tournaments, a U.S. tradition inspired by Jaws. The only parts of these sharks not routinely wasted were fins.
Only Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have designed and enforce comprehensive shark management plans. But managing sharks is not the same as using them wisely or ethically. “The U.S. had been a leader for years,” says famed shark researcher Sam “Doc” Gruber, who owns and runs the Bimini Biological Field Station. “But we’ve fallen behind many other nations. There’s no real reason to catch these fish. Their value is high because of the fins, but to me that’s so inappropriate. We might as well be cutting out flamingo tongues like the Romans.”
On December 1, 2011, the Association for Professional Observers (a group that supports fisheries observers hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service to do onboard monitoring of fishing practices) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a formal complaint with the NMFS, charging that observers who report such violations as finning are fired or assigned “punishment trips.” According to the complaint, observers have been informed that finning violations “were not of interest” to the agency. One observer claimed to have been told by an agency official: “If you have a problem with [these and other] violations, you better get out of the program now.” The NMFS declined to give me a response other than to say: “If we find merit to the allegations, we will address these issues.”
Still, any deficiency in U.S. shark management and enforcement is rendered trivial by the free-for-all happening on the high seas, where sharking is supposedly regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), among other bodies. At ICCAT annual meetings, representatives of the 48 member nations almost never vote. If a nation doesn’t like a proposed rule, it can nix it simply by objecting. For example, at ICCAT’s 2010 and 2011 meetings, the European Union proposed that porbeagles, IUCN-listed as endangered in the northwest Atlantic, be protected. But both times Canada, the only country with a targeted porbeagle fishery, shot down protection. In 2011, for the third year in a row, the United States, Brazil, and Belize tried and failed to get ICCAT to replace its current fin-to-carcass weight ratio requirement with a ban on removing fins at sea. But China, Japan, and South Africa shot down the proposal with the absurd argument that it required too much effort on the part of fishermen.
In 1996, with the fin trade soaring and sharks plummeting, Audubon sent me to Philadelphia to attend the shark meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council. Jack Musick, then of the vertebrate ecology and systematics programs at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, scolded the NMFS for its shark plan—a generic document for multiple species and built around a recovery rate three times higher than biologically possible. Musick testified that it was “very frustrating for those of us in the scientific community who work with these animals to keep coming to these meetings, keep presenting the data, and have the NMFS blow us off.”
Musick has since left the institute but serves on the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the NMFS stock-assessment team. “How is the U.S. doing on sharks today compared with when I saw you last?” I asked him last November.
“Night and day,” he replied, offering the strict management perspective as opposed to Gruber’s thoughts on ethics. “NMFS has established a population-dynamics group of Ph.D.-level shark people. What we have now are species-specific assessments. Sandbars [save for a small scientific take to keep tabs on the population], duskies, and sand tigers are now protected; they have to be released alive. Some species, like blacktips, have recovered. Others have stopped declining. Now there are quotas for large and small coastal sharks. In terms of management along the East Coast, I think things are well in hand. Now we have to wait for the populations to come back, and some are doing that. I would say now the Atlantic Coast shark fisheries are among the best managed in the world.” On our Pacific Coast, where cold water limits shark fauna anyway, Washington, Oregon, and California banned possession and sale of shark fins in 2011.
Furthermore, the amended 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act is spurring the NMFS to do its job; it makes the agency’s previously routine approvals of overfishing illegal.
But any progress in building shark populations in U.S. waters is more than negated by the global slaughter—usually for fins. Despite enlightened management of sharks in its own waters, the United States ranks eighth among the world’s top shark- and batoid-killing nations (ahead of even China and Japan). And the demand for shark-fin soup among Asian-Americans makes the United States a major importer of processed fins.
This country banned shark finning in the U.S. Atlantic in 1993 and in the Pacific in 2002. But “finning” is defined as cutting off fins at sea and deep-sixing the carcasses. Bringing sharks to shore, cutting off their fins, and then deep-sixing or landfilling the carcasses was and is something else, something perfectly legal. The original finning ban required sharkers to possess an onboard weight ratio of 95 percent dressed carcasses to 5 percent fins—a positive step, although cheating was easy. Then, in January 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act, which requires sharkers to unload carcasses of all species save smooth dogfish with fins attached.
There’s still cheating, but the new law has impeded shark killing. Former sharker Jon Newman of Tequesta, Florida—now a passionate shark advocate who tags sharks for Gruber’s Bimini Biological Field Station—told me this: “It’s not a fun fishery. When I caught big lemon sharks commercially I’d shoot them, cut them into three pieces, throw the heads overboard, and put the rest in my fish box. Now you have to bring whole sharks to the dock. How do you lift a 350-pound shark? It’s a nightmare. In response, fishermen have switched from targeting large coastal pelagics to blacktips and spinners. Sandbars were the bulk of the catch, but you can’t kill them anymore. Soon there might be a new quota on blacktips and spinners—another nail in the fisherman’s coffin.”
Now the United States needs to rise to the level of more enlightened nations like, well, Palau. In recent years commercial shark killing and trafficking have been banned in Israel, Egypt, the Maldives, and Palau. And French Polynesia now protects all sharks save shortfin makos. In 2011 progress accelerated dramatically, especially in the Pacific, where a non-binding regional ban on possession and trade in shark or ray parts was approved by the Northern Marianas, Guam, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, American Samoa, Nauru, and Hawaii. Also in 2011 Honduras, Fiji, and the Bahamas banned commercial shark killing and trade. Toronto, Canada’s largest market for shark products, banned the sale of fins in October 2011, and a bill for a national ban was filed in December.
Some U.S. states do better than the feds. In 2010 Florida banned commercial fishing for lemon sharks, and this past November it protected tiger sharks and three species of hammerheads. But in federal water and on the high seas, Americans can legally kill these species.
“Through all these [Pacific and Atlantic] sanctuaries we have protected 1.8 million square miles of shark habitat,” says Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, which had a major hand in making it happen.
Even at current fin prices sharks are worth far more alive than dead. Visitors to the Canary Islands spent about $22 million in 2010 to dive among sharks and rays. Eight percent ($18 million) of Palau’s gross domestic product comes from shark tourism. A single reef shark in Palau has an estimated lifetime value of $1.9 million. In the Bahamas a single large shark can be worth as much as $200,000 over its natural life-span. Whale shark viewing annually brings in an estimated $47.5 million worldwide.
A better question than what are live sharks worth is what do dead ones cost. Recent studies show that large-scale removal of these apex predators is unraveling entire ecosystems—“trophic cascading,” the scientists call it. For example, shark depletion in some tropical waters has led to an unnatural increase in midsized predator fish. These, in turn, deplete herbivorous grazers. The result: proliferation of algae that smothers coral reefs.
In Australia the reduction of tiger sharks has allowed dugongs and green turtles to venture into and damage wider, richer sea-grass beds and the communities they sustain. Tiger shark depletion in Hawaii has created a surfeit of their seabird prey. Seabirds are major predators of juvenile tuna, so that valuable resource has dwindled. The tuna crash, in turn, has led to an explosion in bottom fish, which will surely damage the marine ecosystem, albeit in unknown ways.
As the number of large coastal sharks has dropped along our East Coast, cownose rays, a prey item, have increased by at least 20-fold, to 40 million. Over 100 days cownose rays that summer in Chesapeake Bay consume about 840,000 metric tons of scallops, oysters, and other bivalves. In the mid-1980s, before the shark-fin boom, there was no detectable change in summer abundance of bay scallops. By 2002 harvestable bay scallops had been virtually eliminated. In 2006 cownose rays devoured 775,000 oysters planted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Piankatank River as part of an effort to restore Chesapeake Bay’s dwindling shellfish.
Some scientists think the abundance of cownose rays in Chesapeake Bay has as much to do with the buffet being set out for them in the form of planted oysters as shark depopulation. But what’s disturbing about the study is not debate about its conclusions; it’s how managers, the shellfish industry, and the media are using those conclusions to whoop it up for increased cownose ray exploitation. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing. “The fishery is completely unregulated,” says Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International. “This animal has one pup a year, if that. I talk to people at the seafood shows who claim cownose rays are being fished sustainably. When I ask them for evidence they say they’re a ‘nuisance.’ Well, that doesn’t make them sustainable. That’s how the coastal shark fishery got started. People saw declining swordfish and lots of sharks. So with no thought about biology, they promoted coastal shark fishing. That’s why we have species like duskies that won’t recover for a hundred years.”
As is always the case when a stock is depleted, commercial fishermen targeting that stock claim the science is all wrong and that the species is in great shape. Sharkers see “lots of sharks.” It’s like arguing that peregrine falcons are common because you can see three or four a day over the cliffs at Montauk, New York, in October. Speaking for a large element of the industry is retired sharker Bill Goldschmitt. “So one might ask: ‘Why does the eco-hysteria soap opera continue?’ ”he says. “Shark fiction over truth is fueled by eco-hypocrisy. . . . These [management] agencies are dominated by eco-lunatics. . . . I have, for nearly a decade, proclaimed that these agencies and these so-called ‘shark experts’ be held accountable for shark attacks.” Similar rants are set forth in the 2010 documentary film Shark Con.
On the other hand, the general public is starting to embrace sharks the way it has long embraced large, furred mammals like cats. There’s even major traffic in cloth sharks for kids. Today Jaws-inspired dead-on-the-dock shark-killing contests still happen, but the carnage is considerably less, mostly because sharks are hard to come by but also because piles of dead ones make bad PR. That’s not to say kill tournaments are no longer a threat to marine ecosystems.
Thanks to a campaign sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and its allies, most notably the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation—which organizes no-kill tournaments in which sharks are tagged for research—shark killing for bragging rights is coming under increased condemnation. The Shark-Free Marina Initiative, on whose advisory board I serve, encourages marinas, restaurants, and tackle shops to register as “shark-free” (by which they pledge to prohibit sharks from being brought to their facilities). In return they get free advertising and signs featuring the acclaimed marine artwork of Guy Harvey. At this writing, 131 marinas (including 94 in this country) have signed up. Tournaments, charter captains, and individual anglers can sign on as “shark friendly,” pledging to release all sharks they catch. (To learn about the shark crisis from Harvey, go to The Shark-Free Marina Initiative.)
Domestic and international management alone can’t save sharks. As long as fins fetch big money, sharks will be killed legally or illegally. Their only possible salvation is a sea change in attitudes brought about by education—much like the national rejection of the millinery trade fomented by Audubon activists in the early 20th century.
Such a change is beginning, even in Asia. Seventy-eight percent of Hong Kong residents surveyed by the University of Hong Kong Social Sciences Research Centre believe that it is “very acceptable” or “acceptable” to take shark-fin soup off wedding menus. And in January 2012 Asia’s oldest hotel chain, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., ceased serving shark-fin soup at group operations and at all its restaurants “in recognition of the threat facing the global shark population.” It hopes to “inspire other hospitality companies to do the same.”
Sharks appeared on earth well before the dinosaurs, eventually filling every available niche from that of the tiny, cigar-shaped cookie-cutter shark, which bites half-dollar-sized divots from earth’s biggest animals (cetaceans) to that of the whale shark, largest of all fish, which grazes on the smallest sea creatures (plankton).
Sharks haven’t changed much because they haven’t had to. They’ve been able to adapt to every planetary catastrophe save one—human rapaciousness. Our elders by some 400 million years, sharks have proved themselves one of nature’s most successful experiments. If we permanently exchange them and the natural order they maintain for temporary soup, we will likely prove ourselves one of nature’s least successful experiments.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you are an ecotourist, travel to a country that protects its sharks. Urge your federal legislators to support a national ban on possession and trade in shark fins. Start or join a shark-protection campaign in your state. If you know a restaurant that offers shark-fin soup, get in the proprietor’s face. If you know a marina that sponsors dead-on-the-dock shark tournaments, tell management about the Shark-Free Marina program and give them the above link, along with a copy of this article. For the latest on shark threats and protection, visit the Pew Environment Group's Global Shark Conservation page.