Sunday, June 8, 2008

Taste for expensive soup cuts shark populations around the globe

Feeding frenzy: Taste for expensive soup has thinned shark populations around the globe
By David Fleshler
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
June 8, 2008

Shark kills surfer off Mexico.

Man bitten by shark in New Smyrna Beach.

Austrian tourist dies after Bahamas shark attack.

These events grab the public's attention, but the past few years have been far worse for the sharks.

At the China Pavilion restaurant of Greenacres, a tureen of Dragon Phoenix shark fin soup costs $59.95. At the Silver Pond restaurant of Lauderdale Lakes, the most expensive variety costs $110.

Once served at the banquet tables of Ming emperors, the ancient delicacy has grown so popular that the world's shark populations have been devastated. Driving the market is the rise of the middle class in China.

On the east coast of the United States, where most shark fishing boats operate out of Florida, federal regulators have cut quotas to allow shark populations to recover. Congress is considering a bill to toughen the ban on finning, in which fishermen chop the fins off the live shark and throw it back into the ocean to die.

"Sharks are the biggest mass slaughter of large wildlife happening on the planet today," said Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a conservation group. "Sharks have been around for 400 million years, and we're looking at basically wiping them out in one human generation."

Sharks vs. people
On May 23 at Mexico's Pantla beach, a stretch of sand near Acapulco, a 21-year-old student was starting to surf when a shark attacked and pulled him under. The shark bit off his left hand and bit his leg. Although the surfer was pulled to shore alive, he bled to death.

The attack was the fifth fatal shark attack of 2008. Earlier this year, a shark killed an Austrian tourist on a shark-viewing dive in the Bahamas, a great white killed a surfer off San Diego, a suspected bull shark killed a 16-year-old boy in Australia and a tiger shark killed a surfer off Mexico's Pacific coast.

Meanwhile, 26 to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their meat or fins, said Shelley Clarke, a fisheries biologist who testified before Congress. More than 100 species are classified as threatened, including the basking shark, great white, great hammerhead and spiny dogfish.

This year, the National Marine Fisheries Service temporarily halted fishing for several shark species. It announced a deep cut in the total take of sandbar sharks and several other species. It required fishing boats to bring sharks to the dock with fins attached to improve enforcement of the finning ban.

The restrictions have hit hardest in Florida, which accounts for more than half of the East Coast's commercial shark fishing permits. Last year, the state's fishing boats landed 45,480 pounds of shark fins, less than half the previous year's catch because of a technical adjustment to quotas.

Robert Spaeth, a Madeira Beach shark and grouper fishermen, said the regulations were forcing him to keep some of his boats idle at a time when shark populations are robust.

"The future looks very bleak," he said. "As soon as they start eating people, and the Chamber of Commerce starts screaming, then maybe something will happen. Eat the shark before the shark eats you."

Until the federal cutbacks, Cory Burlew sailed his boat out of Deerfield Beach to catch 30 or 40 sharks a year.

"Some sharks are worth pretty good money," he said. "What I like best about shark fishing is there's something big to pull on that's supposedly ferocious."

At the request of the shark industry, Gov. Charlie Crist asked the U.S. Department of Commerce for disaster relief, saying the restrictions have caused "severe economic hardship." Sonja Fordham, director of the shark program at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, said emergency aid would reward the industry for fighting restrictions that could have saved sharks.

"The industry has filed lawsuit after lawsuit to prevent the implementation of scientific management," she said. "For the most part, the industry won. And now we have the predicted effect, more depletion of the population."

Power food?
Like many foods in Chinese cuisine, shark fin soup holds symbolic as well as culinary significance. Served at weddings and other important occasions, it symbolizes power, prestige and honor.

The soup uses only the fins' cartilage needles, which provide a gelatinous texture but no flavor. Little known among Western diners, it can be found in establishments that cater to Asians.

At Hong Kong Market and Cho A Dong Oriental Food Market, set among a cluster of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses on State Road 7 northwest of Fort Lauderdale, the canned soup sells for $5.95.

The China Pavilion restaurant on Lake Worth Road serves three varieties. Lily Cho, daughter of the owner, said her father had been head chef of a restaurant in New York's Chinatown, where serious restaurants are expected to serve it.

"My father is so traditional he has it on the menu," she said, although she said he may remove it because of the impact on sharks. "When you order it off the menu, it's a special occasion."

Like most Chinese restaurants, she said, her father's serves a combination of real and imitation shark fin. The last time she saw a bowl of authentic shark fin soup was at a wedding in California.

"I was shocked," she said. "I could tell he probably spent over $20,000. Everybody in their bowl had a big scoop."

Fins on the Internet
The world's fin dealers congregate in cyberspace on the international trade site, which lists about 300 fin sellers.

Star Inc., of Hollywood, advertises fins from tiger sharks, makos, hammerheads "and many, many more!!!!...We've got big quantities." Ben Freedman, listed last month as the company's contact person, said in a brief telephone interview, "I'm getting them in the Bahamas and selling them to the Far East." He said he had no time to talk further and could not be reached later despite repeated messages.

Alibaba, partly owned by Yahoo, is a publicly traded Chinese company. Conservationists have called on it to drop the ads.

"Alibaba is the No. 1 platform in the world for this," said Richard Stewart, executive director of the Ocean Realm Society, an environmental group based in New Smyrna Beach, which organized a petition drive. "It's getting out of control. How long do you think this species is going to last in the ocean?"

Alibaba spokeswoman Christina Splinder said the company sees itself as a "neutral marketplace" that doesn't impede legal transactions.

"The trading of shark fins is an issue that honest people can disagree on and there are many cultural perspectives on this issue," she wrote in an e-mail.

The United States outlawed shark finning in 2000, prohibiting fishing boats from taking the fins unless they took the rest of the shark.

Last year, state and federal authorities discovered 91 pounds of shark fins without corresponding carcasses on a boat at Port Canaveral. They sent the fins to Nova Southeastern University's Guy Harvey Research Center in Dania Beach, where executive director Mahmood Shivji has developed a quick genetic identification technique for sharks. He found the fins had come from protected dusky and night sharks. The boat operator, Frank Davis, was fined $38,000.

Congress is considering rules to further protect sharks. The Shark Conservation Act of 2008 would allowing sanctions against countries that permit finning and tighten the finning ban. The bill was prompted by the Coast Guard seizure of a cargo ship with 65,000 pounds of fins, in which charges were dropped after an appellate court ruled the law covered only fishing boats.

Conservationists say finning is a cruel practice that facilitates the mass killing of sharks.

"You can take a small boat and clear out a whole reef very quickly," said Knights, of WildAid. "You waste 90 percent of the animal. Often the animals are still alive when they're dumped back in the water. Enforcing something like this is a bit of a joke. It's impossible to quantify but you're talking about millions of sharks a year."

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