With his orange life vest tightly fastened and carrying a plastic water gun, 6-year-old Murakami Yoshinao climbed down the motorboat’s fibreglass steps and plopped into the sea below. The water sloshed around Yoshinao’s shoulders and shadows moved across the bone coloured sand near his feet. Then the blacktip sharks came closer – one glided right past Yoshinao’s grandma.
When Peace Boat docked off Bora Bora in French Polynesia recently, Yoshinao and his grandparents joined a group of other passengers on an excursion to swim with sharks. “They came right at me. I wasn’t scared, I was surprised,” Yoshinao said through an interpreter, crisscrossing his hands in front of his face to show how the sharks were moving. After he swam with them, Yoshinao said, sharks were one of his favourite animals.
Yoshinao’s grandmother Murakami Setsuko said that like many Americans, Japanese people tend to fear sharks. But they also think of them as food. Setsuko said that she occasionally eats shark fin soup and shark meat on trips to Tohoku in northern Japan, where it is a specialty.
Research conducted by Canada’s Dalhousie University and other academic institutions in 2013 – cited in Dan Stone’s article on Ocean Views – suggests that 100million sharks, or between 6.4% and 7.9% of the shark population, are killed every year. This exceeds the 4.9% limit for maintaining population stability.
Environmental groups say that finning sharks to sate demand for shark fin soup and other products is largely to blame for endangering one third of oceanic shark species.
Like elephants hunted for their tusks and left to bleed out, finned sharks are tossed back into the ocean – often still alive – to bleed to death, die of starvation, or be eaten by predators.
Shark fin soup is said to have originated in Ming Dynasty China, whose emperors delighted in the rare and exotic. However, it is no longer the preserve of the super rich: NGO Wild Aid claims that the number of consumers who can afford or have access to shark fin has risen from a few million in the 1980s to more than 300 million today.
“Fins are worth so much money that it is not worth the time and effort to fill up a boat with the shark carcasses,” said Pania Lincoln, director of NGO PangeaSeed Japan, which spreads awareness of the plight of sharks through educational programs, talks, and live music and art events.
In Japan, a bowl of shark fin soup, or fukahire, can cost over US$100. Although not a part of traditional Japanese cuisine, it is regarded as a delicacy and status symbol. But consumers are sometimes unaware of how their meal has been sourced. “I didn’t know about finning. Until now I always thought that they used the whole shark because I have seen the meat for sale,” said Yoshinao’s grandmother Murakami Setsuko.
As Peace Boat sailed the Pacific, Pania Lincoln gave a series of lectures on sustainable oceans that aimed to show how central sharks are to the marine eco-system. Lincoln began by debunking some of the myths surrounding sharks. Contrary to their fearsome reputation, sharks kill five people per year, she said – less than vending machines, falling out of bed, or ants.
Because sharks are late to sexually mature and produce few young, their populations are especially vulnerable to the pressures of overfishing. According to Lincoln, removing the apex predator from the ocean adds to the threats already posed by overfishing, pollution, climate change and acidification, “fewer sharks mean that fish further down the food chain can increase, which can in turn decimate small marine life such as zoo plankton. This small marine life is vital to sustaining the entire marine system, which provides 70% of our oxygen.” she said.
Some studies have also linked the decline of sharks to the boom in jellyfish populations, which devour plankton.
According to PangeaSeed, Japan ranks as one of the top ten countries globally for overfishing sharks; 80% of fins from Japanese catches are exported to China, Hong Kong and other countries where there is a high demand for shark fin products.
After he attended Lincoln’s onboard lectures, 36-year old Peace Boat passenger Nakao Sadato said he would not be able to eat shark fin soup again, but agreed that sharks had an image problem. “I don’t understand exactly what impact it would have on the eco-system if the number of sharks declined; I haven’t studied it. But in reality, it is not logic that drives people to protect these animals; it is that you care for them – that is what moves people to take action,” Nakao said through an interpreter.
But not everybody onboard thought the subject was worthy of consideration. When volunteer Spanish teacher Carlos Garcia wore a t-shirt with an anti-finning slogan to one of his classes, the discussion it provoked among his retirement-aged students focused on how delicious or pricey the soup was. “I was expecting some deeper reactions,” said Garcia. “It’s like if you asked me about bull-fighting in Spain, whether I approve of it or not, I have a position. But they were like, why are we talking about this now?”
Until recently The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) restricted global trade on eight shark species. In September 2014, a further six species of shark and ray – among them the oceanic white tip and porbeagle – were added to the CITES register. Finning is banned in the EU, the US, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, Argentina and many other countries, and the sale of shark fins and products is prohibited in countries such as Egypt, the Marshall Islands, the Bahamas, and in a few US states.
Animal rights groups say that better enforcement of legislation and more transparency are needed to regulate the shark fin trade.
However, there have been some encouraging signs for sharks of late. In 2013 Hong Kong, the world’s largest importer of shark fin, brought in 35% less shark fin than in the previous year according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Re-exports of shark fin to Mainland China, formerly the largest buyer for shark fin coming through Hong Kong, were down by 90%, the WWF said.
The decline in exports to China has been attributed to efforts from authorities in Hong Kong and China to curb illegal fishing, pressure from green groups, and high profile celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming speaking out against shark finning.
Carmen Chan, a volunteer interpreter on Peace Boat who lives in Hong Kong, said that consumption of shark fin is not as common as it once was among young people, “there are more people who are aware of the environmental impact who say that they are having a green wedding and cut sharks fin soup from the menu,” Chan said.
Could a similar decline in consumption occur in Japan? Pania Lincoln suggested that through education and greater awareness of the role sharks play in our eco system, consuming shark fin soup would go out of fashion. “That is why we have a lot of youth-focused events like skating, live music, and painting; shark-fin soup is something we associate with the older generation,” she said.
Peace Boat passenger Suzuki Yuta, a chef at a Tokyo hotel whose menu includes sharks fin said, “In the younger generations there aren’t many people who just want to eat a shark fin dish. Shark fin does not really have a flavour of its own, it just adds texture; preparing sharks fin is all about how to add flavour to it.”