Shark-Soup Boom Spurs Conservationist DNA Study

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
September 17, 2002

A burgeoning appetite for shark-fin soup has prompted the development of new genetic tests that will help safeguard the shark for commerce as well as conservation.

In the Far East, shark fin has long been a delicacy. Because the fin is so costly, however, only the wealthiest families could afford to serve it. Now the demand for shark fin has boomed along with Asian economies.

"Anywhere there is a large Chinese population there is a demand for shark-fin soup," said Mahmood Shivji, a conservation geneticist at Nova Southeastern University in Dania Beach, Florida. "In Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver, for example, you can find packaged shark fin in many stores."

Shivji is co-author of a study describing the new genetic tests in the August issue of Conservation Biology.

Broad Medicinal Qualities

"The Chinese consider the shark fin to have medicinal qualities. Everything from curing cancer to just a healthy tonic—the equivalent of chicken soup," said Shelley Clarke, a graduate student at London's Imperial College and a co-author of the paper. Some believe that the shark fin is an aphrodisiac.

Shark fin is one of the most expensive foods in the world. In the United States, where finning is prohibited, a bowl of shark-fin soup can sell for $70 to $150. For trophy species like the whale and basking shark, a single fin can fetch $10,000 to $20,000, Shivji said.

In commercial fishing, shark fin is much more in demand than shark flesh. Consequently, many fishing vessels slice off the fin and dump the carcass overboard—a "brutal and wasteful" practice called "finning," said Shivji.

The shark, which cannot swim without its fins, either drowns or dies from starvation. In the United States, the purchasing, landing, or possession of shark fins alone is prohibited under the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, which was enacted on December 27, 2000.

Shark Census

Measuring the shark population, much less the impact of finning, is a challenge. Shivji and Clarke developed their genetic tests to use in the shark markets to identify potentially overfished species and to establish quotas for fisheries. In effect, trade data can act as a shark census.

Continued on Next Page >>


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