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.

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