Banning shark fin sales in California: A Chinese-American Marine Biologist’s View

great white shark picture

Great White Shark (photo by Cherilyn Chin Jose)

I am a Chinese-American and a marine biologist and I fully support California Assembly Bill (AB) 376 to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins in California.  Hawaii has already banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.  I have eaten (and enjoyed) dozens of bowls of shark fin soup in my lifetime but I will no longer do that.  My only regret so far in life is that I chose to serve shark fin soup (instead of melon or white fungus soup) at my wedding because of the strong symbolism behind serving it. 

You might be thinking that since I’m a marine biologist *of course* she’ll be on the side of the sharks or any other creature of the oceans.  But while I respect sharks and their role in the ocean food chain, they are not among my favorite animals of the ocean.  I think that Peter Benchley, the author of the book and movie “Jaws,” really made me realize how important sharks are to humans alive.  Although he is responsible for the way most of us fear and vilify sharks, he was also one of their strongest proponents.  He wrote a book called “Shark Trouble” in 2002.  In it he wrote a fictional tale of what would happen to a self sustaining seaside village if sharks were taken from their coral reefs.  In this tale, foreign fishing vessels removed the sharks from a coral reef community in a matter of days.  But the devastating effects lasted much longer as the entire economy of this fictional village collapsed, and the native fishermen did not even start the downward spiral of their economy!  But soon fiction may turn into non-fiction. It has been observed that octopus populations increase once shark populations decrease, and the octopuses end up eating lots of lobsters or crabs from fishermen’s traps! One real life study concluded that the decline of big sharks leads to an increase of small elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives like rays and skates) that feast on the shellfish that humans eat, like scallops and oysters. 

It is estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.  Many sharks do not reach sexual maturity until they are 7 years old, and some large sharks do not reach sexual maturity until their 20’s.  Even then the females only have a few surviving pups.  Even in utero (in the womb) fetal sharks will eat their own brothers and sisters! 

Illegal shark fin sales around the world number at least 1 billion dollars and is (supposedly) second only to drugs like marijuana in illegal trafficking.  Those numbers can certainly be disputed as it is impossible to really track illegal sales, but the point is that in many developing countries, a single shark fin can feed a fisherman’s family for months.  These poor fishermen are not aware that 39 species of sharks are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a threatened (one step away from being endangered) species and that the killing of one shark today means no more sharks tomorrow.  They rarely just kill one, and the whole shark is rarely fully utilized because of the limited space on the fishing vessels.  The sharks are targeted specifically when possible because of the amount of money the fins are worth.  Even the gentle, slow moving Whale Shark, that eats only microscopic plankton, is targeted!  But the consumers of shark fin soup are not living in poverty and can understand that killing the top level predators of any ecosystem cannot last forever.  When was the last time you ate a bear, lion or bald eagle?  These are top level predators on land and humans know that eating them would not be sustainable.  But because the oceans seem so vast and with an endless amount of fish, humans outside the ocean conservation community have yet to grasp that the wildlife supply of the oceans is not endless.  Over 90% of the large fish populations, including sharks, tuna, marlin, swordfish, halibut, and cod are gone (see Scientific American article). Gone forever.  While the supermarket freezer cases are full of fresh fish and you can still order tuna sushi at your local Japanese restaurant, there does not seem any urgency to conserving any fish species.

Some countries around the world (United States included) ban shark finning in their waters.  Palau even created a shark sanctuary in which it is illegal to catch any sharks.  But all nations only have jurisdiction on the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) from their shores.  The rest is international waters.  Often large fleets from foreign countries will swoop in on a developing countries’ waters and take all the fish (including sharks) and then leave.  Some developed countries will pay less developed countries money to let them fish in their waters, but this happens less often then you might hope.

There is much more to this discussion and I know there are always two sides to every story.  I hope that reading my side of the story will at least help you understand why someone would want to stop eating shark fin soup, let alone live in a state like California that wants to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins.  Respect the facts, the opinions of others and follow your own heart.

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