NEARLY TWO tonnes of dried shark fins – from at least 100 sharks caught at sea – found in the hold of a Taiwanese fishing vessel in Cape Town harbour have shed light on a trade that is driving the top hunter of the oceans towards extinction.
The South African permit for the Chien Jiu, whose 26 crew members are being held pending trial, was for the acquisition of just 100 kilos of shark fin. Under international regulations, the Chien Jiu’s skipper was also required by maritime officials to produce the entire body of each shark from which fins were taken: he was unable to do so.
Given the scale of the Chien Jiu’s horde, the Cape Town authorities said the vessel should legally have produced 32 tonnes of whole shark. Only four tonnes were found.
The regulation was brought in to curb the widespread practice of “finning.” Sharks are caught and hauled on board where crewmen remove the gelatinous dorsal and other fins with hot metal blades before sliding the finless fish back into the ocean where, immobile and bleeding, they die from suffocation or predator attack.
“Our oceans are being emptied of sharks, and the scale of the problem is global,” said Julia Baum, a scientist at California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She added: “We are looking at a high risk of extinction of some shark species over the next few years. The loss of top predators such as sharks can damage whole marine ecosystems.”
While sharks kill few humans each year – perhaps dozens, with only 19 fatal attacks in Australian waters since 1990 and four in “Jaws” territory off Florida in the same period – humans kill nearly 100 million sharks each year.
In a quasi-legal trade, linked to Chinese Triad gangs, the fins – selling at US$700 a kilo – are exported into various corners of Asian affluence where bowls of shark fin soup, reputed to offer medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, are dished up at $200 a time.
Great white and hammerhead sharks have been reduced in numbers by 70% in the last 15 years, while others, such as the silky white tip, have disappeared from the Caribbean, according to the late Dr Ransom Myers, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“If you go to any reef around the world, except for those that are really protected, the sharks are gone,” said Myers. “Their value is so great that completely harmless sharks, like whale sharks, are killed for their fins.”
Even Peter Benchley, who put the fear of God into people with his 1974 best-selling novel and film Jaws, about a man-eating great white shark, had a Damascene conversion before he died in 2006. Having dived in a shark graveyards where he saw the corpses of finless sharks littering the sea, he became an ardent shark conservationist.
He said: “I like to think that, after thousands of years and hundreds of generations of fearing sharks and hating them and wanting to kill them, perhaps we’re beginning to appreciate them for the magnificent animals they are.”
Benchley became a member of the US National Council of Environmental Defence, where a spokesman for its oceans programme said: “The shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain. It would have to be written as the victim for world-wide, sharks are much more the oppressed that the oppressors.”
Millions of fins are consumed in shark fin soup in Asian communities, who revere the product as a status symbol and a cure for a range of ailments – although there is no scientific evidence to back the claims.
To serve the soup at a large affair, such as a wedding, is to make a statement about one’s success. “Without shark fin, a Chinese banquet does not look like one at all,” said Chiu Ching-cheung, chairman of Hong Kong’s Shark Fin Trade Merchants’ Association.
Benchley tried it and gave this verdict: “It’s stringy and slimy and mucousy and tasteless – but savour isn’t the point of shark fin soup. The point of serving and eating it is to show off.”
Dr Len Compagno, one of the world’s leading shark experts, based at Cape Town’s Iziko Museum, said: “I fear the bitter end for sharks is already here.”
He said that although great white sharks are protected in South African waters some species, such as the blue shark, which grows to nearly four metres long, have been severely depleted.
Compagno said shark species can take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity and give birth to only a few young at a time. As the top predators at the apex of reef systems, sharks keep the ecological balance, he said. “By eliminating sharks, you pull the plug on the reefs, resulting in overpopulation, overgrazing and overfeeding by other reef dwellers.”
Meag McCord, a scientist with the South African Shark Conservancy, said “finning” is illegal in South African coastal waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore. She said the Chien Jiu had probably caught most of its sharks outside the South African coastal zone, although within it there is little monitoring of foreign fishing fleets.
McCord said assessments of the South African shark stock had begun recently. “The reality is that our sharks are being targeted,” she said.
“It appears that while our stocks are sustainable, they are nevertheless declining despite their protection by law.”