Skip to content

SHARK! (ahem, shark?)

August 16, 2008

Four-time Olympian/Playboy cover model Amanda Beard won’t be bringing any bling home from Beijing, but she’s still in the spotlight. Her nude anti-fur ad has gotten all the attention, but she’s also in a pro-shark video (wearing a bathing suit).

You see, shark populations are declining worldwide. But the latest news is from the Mediterranean where only 10 of the 71 species of sharks and rays are a-okay (species of “least concern” in IUCN lingo). Here, scientists have found that five shark species (hammerhead, blue, thresher and two kinds of mackerel sharks) have declined by between 96 and 99.99% (i.e. not quite extinct) over the last 200 years.

And the sharks aren’t likely to bounce back anytime soon. They take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. A healthy population must be loaded with reproductive females—and there aren’t very many of those in the Mediterranean populations. Of course, it’s hard for sharks to survive and reproduce when we keep killing them. (Ooops.) Like all marine life, sharks are threatened by habitat loss from pollution, development and warming ocean temperatures. But humans actively kill more than 100 million sharks a year and most of those sharks are killed for their fins—the not-so-secret ingredient in the swanky (i.e. $100/bowl) Chinese delicacy known as shark fin soup.

“Finners” kill somewhere between 26 and 73 million sharks annually. They catch a shark and remove its fins. Then they toss the shark back in the water where it will die because it’s now a finless shark and a finless shark can’t really swim. The practice is ridiculously wasteful—they discard 95% of the shark—and ridiculously profitable (shark fins go for $700/kg in Hong Kong).

We can all say boo hoo hoo about the sharks, but wait. This is actually big time bad news. Ya see, sharks are apex predators (i.e. the top of the food chain, except for humans which have a bad habit of screwing things up). As apex predators, they control the whole ecosystem—with their mouths. They eat the weak guys, provide food for scavengers and keep populations of snackable fish in check so there’s room for plenty of diversity. Basically, they’re in charge and without them, all hell breaks loose.

In the northwest Atlantic, 11 species of great sharks (a.k.a. the big guys) are no longer pulling their weight as apex predators. As the shark populations declined (by more than 75% between 1986 and 2001), populations of 12 species of rays, skates and smaller sharks grew rapidly. The number of cownose rays increased the most and all the cownose rays did what cownose rays do: They ate bivalves (like clams, oysters, mussels and scallops). By 2004, cownose rays had eaten so many bay scallops in North Carolina that the scallop fishery had to close. Then they moved onto another American favorite, the quahog, eating so many that chefs had to pull clam chowder from their menus.

The chain reaction doesn’t stop there. Bivalves are the ocean’s filtration system so fewer bivalves means a dirtier ocean. And bivalves often live in seagrass beds, which are prime nursery areas for young fish. As the hungry rays root around in the seagrass beds in search of food, they uproot the grass, removing the protective feature of the nursery.    

The loss of sharks in the Caribbean has had a similar effect. There, algae and coral compete for space on reefs. Usually, the coral wins because herbivorous fish eat the algae. But without sharks, the equation looks like this: Groupers thrive. Groupers eat herbivorous fish. Algae thrives. Coral is screwed. And without a vibrant coral reef filled with hiding spots, the entire reef ecosystem is pretty much f*cked.

And that’s why Beard is speaking out against shark fin soup. But she’s not the only Olympian taking a stand. Last week, NBA superstar and three-time Olympian Yao Ming called a press conference in Beijing to announce that he would never eat shark fin soup again.

[Many nations have banned shark finning. In June, the U.S. declared that sharks landed in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic must have their fins still “naturally attached”…not stapled, glued or even duct taped.] 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kol permalink
    June 1, 2009 4:37 pm

    such a messed up situation – the movie Shark Water does a great job bringing home how the whole industry works, and showing warmer, cuddlier side of sharks:

  2. August 19, 2009 3:41 pm

    Yup, this explains pretty clearly what I’ve been telling people for years while guiding in an Aquarium… we need sharks!!!

    Now if someone could only explain to me the necessity of mosquitos… ;o)


  1. Overfishing Simplified…Then Complexified « Mauka to Makai
  2. Contests and Carnivals « Mauka to Makai

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: