Shark! | February 18, 2008

A few weeks ago we organised a public speaking workshop for the whole of Clearleft. A lovely chap called Alex Marshall hosted the workshop, and asked us all to give a 5 minute presentation to the rest of the team. Each session was video recorded and then played back to help us see what we’re doing well and what we’re doing badly.

I’ve been a dive instructor for several years, and have worked as a safety diver on shark feeds in the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve dived with all sorts of sharks in my time, from little white tip reef sharks in Thailand to schools of over 50 hammerheads in the South China seas. There is nothing like jumping in the water with a top level predator to get the heart racing.

However my first ever experience of a shark underwater was dead, laying on the bottom of the ocean with it’s fin cut off. Shark meat isn’t worth much, so it’s quite common to slice the fins off a living shark and then throw it back in the water to slowly drown. As such, I chose to do my talk on the terrible shark finning trade around the world.

Shark fin soup is increasing in popularity due to the economic success of China and other Asian countries. At $100 per bowl in some Hong Kong restaurants, shark fin soup is a sign of power and wealth. However it has little in the way of taste or nutritional value, with all the flavour coming from the chicken stock it’s cooked in. It’s really just there so you can say you’ve eaten shark.

The raising demand for shark fins is having a dramatic effect on the shark population. Many sharks don’t reproduce until the age of 15, so they are extremely sensitive to over fishing. As a top level predator, their disappearance may also have dramatic effects on other parts of the eco-system. There was evidence a few years back that the spiney lobster stocks around Tasmania had collapsed as a direct result of shark overfishing. With no sharks to keep octopus number in check, there was a massive bloom octopus numbers and they were eating all the lobsters.

The problem is that sharks have gained an undeserved reputation as killers, largely as a result of films like Jaws. In reality there are only around 5 unprovoked shark attacks per year, while around 50 million sharks are killed by the finning trade. Much of this trade domes from Europe, which supplied about a third of the fins used ion the Hong Kong shark trade. Spain is the worst culprit, but the UK also has pretty poor regulations.

People love dolphins because they are cute, but few people care about the fate of the shark.

This is anecdotal, but I personally witnessed the affect of overfishing sharks in as little as 3 months. When I was working on the island of Koh Phi-Phi back in 1999, the fishermen were catching fairly large specimens. However as the weeks progressed I noticed the catches getting smaller and smaller until one day, no more sharks were being caught. I went back to Thailand this time last year, and underwater sightings of sharks in the area had dropped to almost zero.

I noticed there was an article in the Times today on the fate of the worlds shark population. It seems that the Hammerhead shark, along with 8 other species, has been put on the ‘red list’ of endangered species. Apparently stocks of the scalloped hammerheads have fallen by 98 percent off the US Atlantic coast since 1970. It’s an interesting read, so I urge you to take a look.

We’re starting to see a resurgence of documentary making at the moment, and Sharkwater gets it’s UK release on the 22nd of February. The movie charts the film makers journey of discovery as he sets out to make an underwater shark adventure but ends up getting embroiled in the international finning trade. I’ll be going to see the movie and I hope you will to. In the meantime, please support the anti finning movement by avoiding any restaurants that sell shark fin soup.

Posted at February 18, 2008 2:10 PM


Aral Balkan said on February 18, 2008 2:24 PM

Hey Andy,

Do you think we could start a campaign here in Brighton? I know it’s a small place but that’s exactly why it could have a big impact in changing the behavior of the one or two restaurants that do serve it. And, with a little media coverage, it might just get the ball rolling in other parts of the country.

Your blog post is a great first step. What’s step number two?

Kevin Lamping said on February 18, 2008 2:43 PM

Thank you for taking the time to write this. Just knowing there is a problem is half the battle. And I agree with you, the best way to stop mass extinction of species is not to outlaw the killing, but to change consumer views so that the marker disappears.

Paul Burgess said on February 18, 2008 3:04 PM

Good post Andy, I heard about this a couple of months ago in a magazine, it makes me angry - but what can I/we do? Is there a charity to donate to?

Ryan Downie said on February 18, 2008 3:10 PM

Thanks for writing this Andy. You have enlightened me on this subject. I did not even know that Sharks where fished in this manner.

I find it pretty sad that our species has to nearly wipe out other species to extinction just to show wealth and greed. This is also happening with other species as you all know.

It is all truly sad but I do not really think that there is anything that we can do. There is at the moment a demand for these animals and there is always going to be a supplier no matter how illegal and immoral it becomes.

Yeah we can boycott restaurants and going on holiday to the countries that support this but unless there are millions of pounds lost they won’t be bothered.

Paul Burgess said on February 18, 2008 3:10 PM

Here’s that article:

Jeff Croft said on February 18, 2008 4:17 PM

Great post. As a fellow shark enthusiast, finning is an issue I’m passionate about, as well — I hadn’t heard of Sharkwater. I’m definitely going to check it out. Thanks, Andy!

Rob Goodlatte said on February 18, 2008 4:41 PM

Not only does shark fin soup have zero nutritional value (it’s only cartilage, so if it was all you had to eat, you would die), but it usually contains large amounts of mercury as well. It’s a brutal and disgusting practice, but as long as it remains a culturally important dish in China this is going to keep happening.

Jim O'Donnell said on February 18, 2008 5:54 PM

Eating shark fin as a display of status reminded me of this BBC story from Beijing, which refers to people spending thousands to order tiger penis, merely to impress their associates.

“And does it have any particular potency? “No. People just like to order tiger to show off how much money they have.””

Paul Annett said on February 19, 2008 10:11 AM

I hadn’t realised any of this before your talk during the public speaking workshop. I’m with Aral - what’s the next step for us Brightonians? I saw this sculpture and thought of you.

Helen said on February 19, 2008 5:25 PM

Thank you for this informative. interesting and awareness post! I guess, I’ve been one of those who consider sharks dangerous and that’s it. I’ve never seen the other side of the medal…till now.

But the most amazing thing is that this discussion is related to web design - who would have thought!..

I knew about your diver certificate - yet I didn’t know the details. That must be exciting! If you don’t mind me asking, what got you keen on diving?

Andy Budd said on February 19, 2008 9:10 PM

Hey Aral, I have to admit that I’m not much of an activist, so wouldn’t be up for starting a local campaign. I’m more about highlighting the issues and letting people decide for themselves. So while I prefer not to eat in restaurants serving shark fins, I wouldn’t prevent other people for doing so.

I’m not sure I agree with Kevin on the legislation front. Even if the whole of Europe and the US outlawed shark fin soup, it would still leave China and SE Asia as the biggest culprits. There are big cultural differences here, particularly how they view animals and animal welfare. So I think you need to limit supply at the same time as stemming demand. Nether will work in isolation.

Some sharks are territorial, so banning finning in one area would allow the stocks to regenerate. However many sharks roam large parts of the ocean, so even if you did ban fishing in US say, the same sharks would get finned in South America or Australasia.

There are charities and the best known one in the UK is probably

Andy Budd said on February 19, 2008 9:21 PM

I should point out that finning then releasing is illegal in the UK. Fishermen have to catch the whole animal, and the ratio of fin to meat is controlled.

Grant said on March 6, 2008 9:07 PM

I’ve tried sharkfin soup twice whilst at family meals with my Asian fiancée’s family. Whilst prepared differently on both occasions, neither could be said to be flavoursome or special. It truly is a waste of an animal and I’ll certainly keep avoiding it in future; on both occasions I couldn’t have refused without causing offence.

Poor excuse, I know, but you sometimes can’t afford to piss off the future in-laws!

Medford said on March 13, 2008 9:12 AM

I’m constantly amazed that ancient traditions and beliefs are still practiced and allowed. For a suposed intelligent,advance culture they behave primitively, like eating Shark Fin Soup. I believe the WWF should have the powers to arrest and prosecute anyone found involved in the trade of or mis-consumption of animals (rare & endangered).

This is the same issue with the killing of Elephant in Zimbabwe. Over 100 elephant were slaughtered on a recent game hunt for sport. The ivory ‘dissapeared’ and the corpses were left to rot (in a country where there is starvation).

The people involved should be punished!