Are People Eating Sharks Out of Existence?

David Fleshler
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
August 22, 2001
As the men of the Miss Rene hauled in their net, three-foot
(one-meter) sharks began dropping to the deck with wet slaps.

Using knives, the crew cut through the strands to remove sharks that were still tangled in the net, many bloody from their struggles. At sunset, the boat headed back to Fort Pierce, Florida, with 4,500 Atlantic sharpnose sharks in its freezer.

The Miss Rene and other boats have caught enormous numbers of sharks in the past few years, drawn by a growing demand for their meat and fins. But as evidence mounts that their catches may be decimating the ocean's top predators, a bitter legal fight has broken out among fishermen, federal regulators, and environmentalists over the level of fishing that sharks can sustain.

Despite a record-breaking number of attacks on people last year, sharks have become the object of an international conservation movement. Jaws author Peter Benchley has agreed to serve as spokesman for a campaign to end the trade in their fins. And leaders of environmental groups, whose preference in poster animals used to run more toward dolphins and bald eagles, have organized Save the Shark campaigns.

"These are ancient creatures," said Merry Camhi, senior scientist with the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program, which has entered the legal fight. "They've been around here for 400 million years. They play a very important role in keeping our ecosystems functioning, just as terrestrial predators do, your bears and tigers and wolves. As part of our natural heritage, they have a right to live in our oceans."

Much of the shark conservation campaign takes place overseas, in countries that lack shark-protection laws. But the legal battle in the United States centers on Florida, home to the largest shark-fishing fleet in the United States outside of Hawaii. Of 287 commercial shark-fishing permits issued by the federal government for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, 169 are held in Florida, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Vast Market for Fins

The catch goes to markets in the United States, Mexico and other shark-consuming countries. But the fastest-growing source of profit is the vast Chinese market for fins. In Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, shark-fin soup is a delicacy comparable to caviar. Chefs extract the flavorless cartilage needles, which add a gelatinous texture to the soup.

One bowl can cost up to $100, a price that once put it out of range to all but a tiny elite. But the rise of a wealthy class in China has created an immense demand for the soup, now a customary dish at weddings, birthdays and other special occasions. It made an appearance in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when the governor's daughter, Jen Yu, ordered shark-fin soup upon sitting down at a restaurant.

"It's a prestige food," said Camhi, who has done extensive studies of shark fishing and the shark trade. "Like a fur coat, it has cachet."

Last year, the United States exported 803,321 pounds of dried shark fins, more than triple what it exported the previous year. Most went to Hong Kong, with smaller amounts to China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea.

After hauling the sharks onto the Miss Rene, a two-man crew set up a long, wooden table. Using serrated knives, they gutted the fish and cut off the heads and fins. They tossed the fins into a black plastic bucket.

The fins gathered that day were small "chip fins," less valued by Chinese chefs. But the previous night the crew caught an eight-foot hammerhead that yielded enormous fins with the long cartilage needles that are highly prized for soup.

The small fins will bring in about four dollars a pound—compared to 30 cents a pound for the meat, said Mike Baker, the boat's owner, who kept in touch with his crew over the radio. During the winter, Baker's boat catches bigger sharks, such as black-tips, which have fins that go for $17 a pound.

Baker went into shark fishing about ten years ago. At the time, the federal government was encouraging fishermen to go after sharks as an "underutilized species" to take pressure off depleted species, such as swordfish.

U.S. boats caught 1,832 tons of shark in 1999 in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, where more sharks are caught than on the west coast. That's a sharp drop from the peak of 7,834 tons reached in 1989, before the federal government imposed quotas. But environmentalists and federal fishery managers say that it's still far too high to allow the dwindling population of sharks to recover.

Sharks are Ill-Prepared to be Prey

As top predators, designed to face few threats from other species, sharks were ill prepared to sustain the massive losses inflicted by industrial-scale fishing. They live long lives, take years to reach sexual maturity and bear few young.

From 1974 to 1998, the stock of sandbar, black-tip, great hammerhead, tiger and other large coastal sharks has declined from about 8.9 million to 1.4 million in the waters off the eastern United States, according to estimates in the federal government's Final Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Tunas, Swordfish and Sharks. Three sharks—gray nurse sharks, dusky sharks and night sharks—are candidates for the endangered species list.

"We believe there is a 90 percent probability that the large coastal shark stocks could go extinct in 10 years at current catch rates," said Gordon Helm, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, referring to commercial extinction, in which stocks fall too low to sustain a fishery.

Shark fishermen dispute these assessments. They say the government had grossly underestimated the number of sharks, using politically driven data designed to wipe out the shark-fishing industry. They say lower quotas would drive them out of business. They say the U.S. catches are a small fraction of the huge hauls taken by fishermen in countries that lack any shark restrictions at all, where the real assault on sharks is taking place.

And they point to evidence that the shark population is rebounding: shredded shrimp nets, an increase in nuisance sharks that steal fish off lines, and more attacks on swimmers.

"I think the management program is working, and I think it's reflected in the attacks," said Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association and the owner of four fishing boats that work the Gulf of Mexico. "There are more sharks than there have been in years. In fact, the fishermen who don't go after sharks are complaining that the sharks are taking their catch. My observations come from the sea and from the fishermen."

David Frulla, a Washington attorney for the fishermen, said the federal estimates were the "agenda-driven" results of computer modeling, assumptions about shark biology and inaccurate catch data.

"If you pick and choose what you put in, it can have a significant impact on what comes out," he said. "We really don't know whether shark stocks have gone up or down. The data is that incomplete."

But federal fishery managers believed the shark population was plummeting, and they have steadily attempted to restrict fishing. In 1993, in the first federal shark-management plan, the government set quotas. It banned the practice of finning, in which fishermen cut off the fins and tossed the sharks back into the ocean to die. Finning is still practiced in other parts of the world.

Quotas Have Not Always Worked

But the quotas failed to halt the decline of many species, said Margo Schulz-Haugen, a federal fisheries biologist. In 1997, the federal government attempted to impose severe cuts. The government cut the quota for large sharks in half, to 1,414 tons. It established the first quota for small sharks. And it banned the catch of whale, white, basking, sand tiger and bigeye sand tiger sharks.

The shark industry struck back. The Southern Offshore Fishing Association, joined by fishermen and seafood distributors, filed suit to block the new regulations, charging that the government's estimates were far too low.

Faced with sharply diverging opinions on the status of the shark population, a federal judge in Tampa, Florida, ordered the government to commission an independent peer review of its shark assessments.

The peer review went awry. Gordon Helm, the spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, declined to say what went wrong. But he said the federal government has commissioned a second peer review. Meanwhile, the federal government announced in June that it would reopen the season for tiger, sandbar, hammerhead and other large coastal sharks at the older, higher quota of 2,828 tons.

Environmentalists were furious. The National Audubon Society and The Ocean Conservancy filed suit in federal court last month, asking the court to restore the lower quotas.

"Once again, fishery managers have failed to provide these vulnerable fish the priority and protection that their biology warrants," said Sonja Fordham, shark fisheries specialist at the Ocean Conservancy.

The legal fight took place as public attention focused on two horrific shark attacks in the waters around Florida.

A New York man was swimming off Grand Bahama Island on August 4, when a shark mangled his leg so badly that surgeons were forced to amputate above the knee. And an 8-year-old boy is slowly recovering from a July 6 attack by a bull shark near Pensacola. The shark ripped off his arm and took a bite out of his thigh before the boy's uncle wrestled the shark to shore.

A record-breaking 79 shark attacks took place around the world last year, 34 of them in Florida, according to the International Shark Attack File, based at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Of the ten fatal attacks last year, one took place in Florida. A 69-year-old man was found floating near his dock on the Intracoastal Waterway in St. Petersburg Beach last August, dead from a massive bite through the torso.

The "Jaws of Government"

Shark experts attribute the increase to the growth in both tourism and the state's population. But shark fishermen see the rise in attacks as evidence that the government's shark-protection program has worked.

The conservative National Review published an article this month on the government's shark quotas titled "The Jaws of Government," which asked: "Are the feds to blame for shark attacks?"

Now all sides are waiting for the results of the federal peer review. If it backs up the government's numbers, the shark quota is likely to be cut in half. Shark fishermen say that will drive them out of business. If it doesn't back up the numbers, the quota won't be cut, and environmentalists say that could lay waste to the sharks.

There are far fewer shark boats than there used to be, as fishermen drifted out of the business, blaming the quotas and seasonal closures.

Mike Baker, owner of the Miss Rene, said he would join them if the peer review goes against the fishermen.

"I'd go out of business," he said. "They're going to tell me there are no sharks out there? There's plenty out there."

Copyright 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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