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  iol.com 30 Sep 07
World's sharks threatened by kitchen predator
By Chesney Bradshaw

Conservationists have fought long and hard battles to save species such as elephants, the rhino, the giant panda, dolphins and whales. Now marine scientists and conservationists face one of their biggest challenges - saving the ocean's sharks.

After visiting a clothing factory in China, Linda Grobbler, a fabric technologist from Cape Town, and her colleagues were invited to lunch at a restaurant in downtown Hong Kong.

As is customary, her Chinese hosts ordered the food. Grobbler was curious about the first course - seafood soup. She asked her Chinese hosts about the ingredients and was told that it was shark fin and abalone soup.

"I was so mad I nearly threw my bowl at our hosts," said Grobbler, "Out of politeness to them I made an excuse that I couldn't eat seafood."

A Capetonian who lives close to the sea, Grobbler enjoys seafood but is aware of the tragic decline in fish stocks. "I know how threatened sharks are because of shark fin soup. To top it all they served it with abalone which has been all but wiped out in the Western Cape."

Marine biologists have warned for many years that shark populations are in danger. But in the past year an ever-increasing number of respected international conservation bodies have placed sharks on their threatened species list. Conservationists are also worried that the decimation of sharks as apex predators, could destroy reef ecosystems, obliterating other marine life.

The shark fin trade is feeding the hungry Asian appetite for shark fin soup. Asia is the largest market as incomes have risen in fast-growing China. It's created a global business worth at least $1 billion a year. A bowl of shark fin soup can sell for more than $150 in top Chinese restaurants. Dried fins fetch up to $800 a kilo in Hong Kong, hub of the global trade.

Sharks have survived the world's oceans for more than 400 million years. In recent times, mass hysteria caused by the film Jaws, led to fear and hatred of sharks with huge numbers hunted and killed.

Sharks are under greater threat now. Dr Len Compagno of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, and regional vice chairman for the Southern Africa region of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN), a shark expert and marine scientist, says the impact of finning is disturbing. "Some large shark populations have plunged to 5% of their original size," he says. "The bitter end is already here."

Fishermen who catch sharks for their fins toss the shark overboard, its body wriggling to a deep ocean-floor grave. Conservationists say it's an animal rights and moral issue that their fins are chopped off while the creature is still alive.

American scientist Dr Shelley Clarke, visiting researcher at Imperial College, London, has worked with shark traders in Hong Kong to obtain estimates of sharks caught worldwide. She's calculated that between 26 million and 73 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. Her best estimate is 38 million. "This is a minimum estimate since some sharks that are caught don't make it into the fin trade," she says.

She says the often-quoted 100-million-sharks-a-year figure is too high as it includes all elasmo branches - sharks, skates and rays. "Sharks comprise only 60% of this number."

Shark finning is cloaked in underworld trade, linked to Chinese Triad gangs. Peter Gastrow, a local securities studies expert, highlighted the involvement of the Chinese Triad gangs in a 2001 report showing that shark fins were exported by Chinese-linked groups to Hong Kong.

It's risky to delve too closely. Nan Rice, founder and director of the Dolphin Action Group and pioneer marine activist in Cape Town, had to stop research on shark finning. "It became too dangerous for our researcher."

During the shark fin wars in the early 2000s, high-profile raids and arrests were made by police working with marine authorities. Craig Smith, deputy director for pelagic and high seas fisheries management with Marine and Coastal Management (MCM), says one shark fin operator was fined R50 000 and given a suspended sentence of over R1 million.

Shark fins and other body parts are openly traded on China's leading online marketplace, Alibaba.com. The website, 40% owned by United States internet giant Yahoo!, lists more than 300 companies involved in the shark fin business.

Shark fin soup has been part of Chinese culture since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It's considered a delicacy and a symbol of wealth and prestige, served at special occasions and celebrations such as weddings and banquets. Shark fins reputedly increase sexual potency and shark parts are believed to cure ailments like cancer and arthritis.

Intense over-fishing for swordfish and tuna by trawl fisheries and long-liners is an associated major threat through by-catches (unintentional catching of fish and shark species). South Africa banned shark finning in 2004 but sharks caught unintentionally can be landed if dead and with fins intact.

Before the banning, thousands of kilograms of shark fins were exported to Hong Kong. In 2000 about 138 559kg of shark fins were imported by Hong Kong from South Africa. MCM catch tables for 2006 show 9 232 kg of sharks caught.

Dr Deon Nel, manager of the aquatic unit of the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa says fisheries are removing large numbers of sharks, particularly blues and makos. "We are concerned about the impact on shark populations."

International conservation bodies are placing more sharks on their endangered species lists. The IUCN's 2006 Red List of threatened species ranks the oceanic whitetip shark as "vulnerable" and moved the angel shark up to "critically endangered". The blue shark, hammerheads and silky sharks are at most risk.

Compagno says the blue shark has been depleted in South African waters.

Scientists and conservationists are anxious about collapsing shark populations because, unlike fish, sharks cannot reproduce quickly to stabilise their populations.

Some species can take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity, give birth to a few young at a time and infant mortality is high.

Sharks, top predators at the apex of reef systems, keep ecological balance. Obliterating sharks leads to overpopulation, overgrazing and overfeeding by other reef dwellers.

"By eliminating sharks, you pull the plug on reefs," says Compagno.

Some countries have attempted to solve the problem by outlawing shark finning. The US, South Africa, Panama, Brazil and Mexico have banned shark finning - out of more than 100 countries that fish or trade in shark products.

Many sharks are migratory which means bans are only effective if all countries ban shark finning.

As more people become aware of the plight of the sharks public protests are growing. Amazon.com agreed this year to remove shark fin soup from its virtual shelves after 14 000 activists protested.

In China, groups are running educational campaigns to change cultural habits. Chinese legislators have requested officials of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to remove the dish from menus.

Changing cultural habits is not easy.

"Trying to stop Asian people from eating shark fin soup is like asking Americans not to eat turkey at Thanksgiving. Shark fin soup is culturally far deeper," says Compagno.

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