Sharks' finale?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 February, 2008, 12:00am

My culinary experiences of shark's fin soup have been resoundingly disappointing. Each spoonful has been fragrant with herbs, salty with ham and chicken broth and the texture of the fin chewy; but beyond that - nothing to write home about. The problem is that the shark fin fibres, known as needles, are tasteless. Excuse my not being a connoisseur, but to my ignorant mind, a synthetic material of the same texture and colour would do the job for a fraction of the price (and among unscrupulous restaurateurs, does).

With this in mind, why are scores of the world's shark species being driven to extinction because of the hunger of Chinese communities for this expensive delicacy? Yes, I know there are centuries of tradition and saving face at important occasions at play, but putting the balance of the ocean's ecosystems in limbo when there are alternatives seems, at best, reckless.

That said, I am not about to advocate banning shark's fin and using substitutes. Rather, I prefer the wisdom of shark experts Julia Baum, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Shelley Clarke, of Imperial College London, who contend that the world needs better shark fishing management, and education.

Dr Baum, a member of the shark specialist group of the World Conservation Union, said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston last weekend that sharks are top of the list of marine fish that could become extinct in our lifetimes. A total of 126 of the estimated 400 species are already on the union's red, or alert, list and at least nine more are to be added - the once-common scalloped hammerhead to the fourth-highest category, endangered.

For Dr Baum, the scalloped hammerhead's inclusion is shocking because it was once considered immune to the effects of overfishing as it was so widely distributed. Over the past 30 years, numbers in some parts of the world have fallen by 98 per cent.

The reason for the decline of the species and other shark populations is in that bowl of shark's fin soup I was so nonplussed about. Once reserved for the rich, the rise of a middle class in mainland China over the past two decades has led to exploding demand.

Fish stocks the world over are being strained, so the fact that sharks are also affected may not seem unusual. Dr Clarke said in Hong Kong on Tuesday that sharks were problematic because little was known about their numbers even though they are the top marine predator. Unlike for commercial fish, like tuna, there is no organisation that regulates shark fishing. This, in turn, means that no one really knows how many there are. Only when a species like the scalloped hammerhead is noticeably less prevalent do we get an idea.

Much is known about the reproductive cycle of a number of shark species, though. They take considerably longer than other fish to mature - anywhere between four and 25 years.

As Dr Baum explained to me, the decrease in shark numbers is worrying because their loss to an ecosystem is unknown. Limited research suggests that marine environments become degraded, with resulting uncertainty for fisheries.

This is regardless of the cruel - and again, unregulated - practices of many of those catching sharks. Because the fins are the only valued parts, they are often cut off on the spot and the fish thrown back into the sea to bleed to death.

In light of China's ever-rising desire for shark's fin soup, Dr Baum and Dr Clarke sensibly seek the regulation of shark fishing. Because tuna trawlers so often also catch sharks, perhaps the world's tuna commissions should be in charge.

In conjunction, though, curbing demand is also needed, given that sharks do not repopulate quickly. Chinese basketball star Yao Ming's joining of the environmental group Wildaid's public awareness campaign on shark's fin is a start, as was the running of five people wearing shark suits at last weekend's Hong Kong marathon. Rising demand obviously means such efforts are not enough, though. Determining accurate shark numbers and introducing fishing quotas is, in such circumstances, essential.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor