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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#380: Not My cup of Tea... Er, Soup!

The issue of eating certain marine critters became one of increased interest in "Lost" Angeles recently when the film crew of "The Cove" discovered that The Hump, a sushi bar in Santa Monica, was illegally serving whale meat. The owner or chef obviously knew it was not "kosher" since the meat was stored in a white Mercedes outside rather than in the kitchen's cooler. For those of you who aren't aware of it, "The Cove" recently won an Academy Award for best documentary, and reveals the herding and killing of dolphins for food and "cultural reasons" in Taiji, Japan. Since whales are marine mammals, it is illegal to harass, hunt or eat them in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. This Act also covers other marine mammals such as our local seals and sea lions. In addition the sei whale, the species identified as being served using DNA tests, is an endangered species. Much as I like sushi (yes, I do eat my finny friends), I hope they throw the book at The Hump for this violation. NEWS FLASH: As I was writing this column, I received information that The Hump is closing its doors.

Readers of my column are already aware that I have no issue with the consumption of animal flesh as long as it is taken legally and preferably with respect. I've hunted and fished in the past. However, there are two major issues that I draw the line on. One is the killing of sentient and social animals such as the great whales. I've spent too much time with them, both here in Catalina waters and in the Sea of Cortez. At night I listened to the beautiful songs of the humpbacks through the hull of the ship and during the day interacted with friendly grays who tried to "introduce" us to their new-born calves. The second is the practice of shark finning, catching hundreds to thousands of sharks on long lines (or by other means), cutting the fins off the living fish and then throwing it back to sea. This wasteful practice simply to add texture to a soup favored as a status symbol in China is inexcusable in my opinion.

While I understand that different cultures use different species for food, these are lines I have drawn regardless of the culture which engages in such practices. I haven't forgotten that the United States was once a "great" whaling nation itself, and also hunted sea lions for their blubber prior to the discovery of oil under the ground in Pennsylvania in the 1850s. Hopefully nations which still practice whaling and marine mammal hunting for food will realize that these species often have high levels of unhealthy pollutants like mercury, DDT and PCBs (as do other higher level predators like tuna), and therefore pose health risks to their citizens, especially young schoolchildren. And those who kill marine mammals just for their fur are beyond my comprehension in today's world of suitable synthetics. Yes, our cave man ancestors and early frontiers folk did this, but there are plenty of substitutes today. Any woman who wishes to make such a fashion statement is definitely NOT on my approved list (despite being desperate for a date!).

For the rest of this column I want to focus on a recent incident involving the killing of a young whale shark in the Philippines. I was not present, but divers I know were and helped me by supplying some of the images included with this column.

To catch a living creature, cut off its fins (eliminating its ability to swim, feed and survive) and throw it back into the ocean alive is abhorrent to me. I believe that we should use every possible part of an animal taken for food... if not for nourishment, for other purposes. Of course we've all heard the stories of how the Native Americans respected their prey and used every part of it once killed. I'm hopeful that is true, but have also seen archaeological evidence that they, too, overharvested their resources and had to move on to new locations. Most of the species we eat today provide not just flesh, but also leather and other useful products.

The finned whale shark (Rhincodon typus) was just a juvenile at a mere 18 feet. Friends of mine from the Philippines and two friends from one of the dive boards I frequent (SingleDivers.com) were present in Batangas Province south of Manila when this young individual was found in the surf, still alive, with its fins cleanly cut off. It died the following day after efforts by many to save it, or at least make it more comfortable. At first the local conservation authorities stated it was caught in a fishermen's net and the fins were cut off to try to free it. That statement is about as preposterous as any I've heard. Doing so would be like cutting off a diver's arms and legs to free them from entanglement in kelp. The finning of whale sharks is illegal in the Philippines. However, the high price they bring from Asian markets is often too strong a temptation for poor fishermen in developing countries... or for the Asian mafioso, which apparently control some of the shark fin trade. Many in the Philippines were outraged at this since whale sharks are a big tourist draw in that country.

When will these practices stop? There are some who estimate as many as 100 million sharks are killed each year. I'm not sure I accept such a high figure, and not all of them are finned. However, marine scientists are starting to realize the tremendous negative impact that killing apex predators like sharks can have on the entire ecosystem. An example is tropical coral endangered due to increased algal growth. This is caused by the elimination of sharks which control the predators that feed on the herbivorous fish responsible for keeping the algae under control. Similarly, commercial shellfish beds such as scallops have been decimated by ray predators which are not kept in check by the dead sharks. Of course the whale shark is not an apex predator... it feeds mostly on plankton.

Decades ago, in the "Jaws" era, some of my high school students used to catch the once plentiful blue sharks off Catalina. They would eat them (yuck, too oily), we'd use them in biology class and I even made sandals out of the sharkskin I tanned. However, some gutted and released them back into the water to watch them swim away. This was abhorrent and I put a stop to it. Not much humor in this week's column... but I find little to laugh at with people serving endangered whale meat or shark fin soup. I have great respect for many aspects of the Asian cultures, but do find these largely Asian culinary practices rather abhorrent. They are certainly not my cup of tea... er, soup. But then some in India are probably horrified when I barbecue my flank steak. Fortunately cattle are domestic and not endangered.

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, finned whale shark in the Philippines (credit: Mark Davis), locals attempting to
make finned whale shark more comfortable (credits: Mark David left and Peri Paleracio courtesy of Robin Dyleski right).

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia