Sharks are often portrayed as sea monsters thirsty for human flesh, but in reality humans are the ones hungry for shark. Shark trade has been on the rise due to the high demand for shark related products. The global shark trade is valued at nearly one billion USD and it is estimated that one hundred million sharks are caught annually. Sharks are valued for their meat, skin, liver oils and above everything else their fins. Shark finning (the harvesting of the shark’s fins and discarding the carcass at sea) is the most exploitive act of shark killing due to the process of only using 6.5% of the shark’s body mass. The reason shark fins are valued so much is because they are used to make traditional shark fin soup, a rare delicacy in Chinese culture. Though many countries are involved in the shark fin industry the biggest producers annually are Indonesia, India, and Spain. The main importers of the shark’s fins are mostly Asian fish markets such as China and Singapore. In particular though Hong Kong has historically been the global hub for trading fins, which acts as a mass importer and re-exporter for international markets. These shark markets have little to no regulations put in place, causing there to be a big gap in information on the number of sharks being harvested. A modern day tragedy of the commons may be upon us if the shark industry isn’t seriously monitored.
In Chinese culture shark fin soup has been around for centuries, first originating popularity during the Song and Ming dynasties. In earlier decades’ wealthy individuals were the primary consumers of shark fin soup, only accounting for a small percent of the population. Often the consumption of shark fin soup indicated wealth and social hierarchy. This all changed though when China’s economy opened in the 1980’s pulling thousands out of poverty and throwing them into a new growing middle class. This new found wealth among the middle class meant more people in demand of shark fin soup. As more Chinese citizens gained higher social status through wealth, the more the demand for the delicacy grew. The relationship between consumption and Chinese culture plays a big role in global shark exploitation. With a ten-centimeter dorsal fin selling for about four hundred and fifty USD this makes the shark finning industry a very profitable business. Money means nothing though for marine ecosystems.
Sharks have been around for millions of years and have evolved to match the environmental pressures put on them, that all changed though when shark fins became popular. Having a very slow growth rates and producing few young means shark population can’t be sustained to meet the economic demand of them. Due to poor regulations sharks aren’t given enough time to replenish their populations. An ocean without sharks mean trouble for the rest of the marine ecosystems. It has been reported in the pacific that long line fishing bycatches of apex predators such as sharks has fallen about 9% each year and more increasingly other fish species, not commonly caught are becoming more abundant. This may indicate that exploitation of sharks may be starting to shift the community structure in oceans. Sharks maintain community structure by feeding on many other species lower in the food trophic levels, which in turn prevents one species from over monopolizing a limited recourse. If sharks were taken out of the picture it could mean a potential collapse in the marine environment.
The exploitation of sharks can’t continue sustainably, other options though are available that benefit humans and these creatures of the deep. The shark watching industry currently generates up to a little over a quarter billion in USD a year, and supplies over ten thousand jobs. With the industry expected to double within 20 years it means it has the potential of coming more valuable than the shark fin industry. Many developing coastal communities use shark finning as a way to support themselves, but with proper planning and development they can double their earnings through ecotourism. This also benefits conservation scientists giving them ability to study shark’s roles in ecosystems. Implementing shark tourism means economic prosperity for generations to come, compared to the shark fin industry, which at the rate its going will only lasting a couple more decades. Also education among the Chinese citizens of the practices that go into harvesting fins could slow the amount of consumption and inspire people to ban the delicacy. Lastly governments from around the world need to set global regulations and monitoring of fisheries so that scientists can get accurate data that could help lead to better conservation efforts of sharks. With just a little effort two of the earths top predators can live in symbiosis together.
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