Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#427: Mmmmm, Mmmmm... NOT Good!

Valentine's Day was a mix of joy and sadness. The lovely lady I had hoped to spend it with was sick, but on that same day a bill was introduced in the California State Assembly to ban the sale of shark fins here. AB 376 was introduced by Assembly Members Paul Fong and Jared Huffman. California already prohibits shark finning within its waters, as does the federal government, but this bill would affect the segment of the restaurant trade that serves shark fin soup.

It is estimated that over 70 million sharks are killed each year so their fins can provide texture (not taste) to this dish, once restricted to the Chinese emperor and elites but increasingly desired as the Chinese people benefit from the economic expansion in their country. It is a status symbol, rather than being savored for its unique taste. The truly sad thing is that tens of millions of these sharks are caught using long lines, gillnets and other methods; and brought into the boats to have their fins cut off while the fish is still alive. Most of them are then tossed back into the water alive to die a slow death, so there is room on board for as many fins as possible. Illegal shark poaching occurs even in protected areas such as Cocos Island off Costa Rica and the Galapagos. Individual ships have been seized with up to 10,000 fins on board.

I am old enough to remember the days off Catalina Island when one could see dozens of sharks from a boat on the way to a dive site. During the last decade, I only remember seeing one blue shark from the deck of SCUBA Luv's King Neptune, and only a dozen or so underwater on my shark dives. Of course I do regularly see horn sharks, angel sharks, swell sharks and even leopard and soupfin sharks underwater. The last species was nearly decimated by the end of World War II due to its take for shark fin soup and for its liver which was high in Vitamin A.

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Shark Specialist Group reports that out of 64 species of pelagic (open ocean) sharks and rays, 32% are "threatened with extinction," another 24% were "near threatened," and an additional 25% lacked sufficient data to evaluate their status. Sharks are highly susceptible to over fishing because they take years to reach sexual maturity and have low reproductive rates once they do.

Why should we be concerned if sharks disappear from the Water Planet after a mere 400 million years of existence? As apex or top predators in many marine ecosystems, sharks play major roles in maintaining the ecological health of marine habitats. In coral reef ecosystems, sharks often control the populations of other large predators like grouper. When sharks are absent, grouper populations may increase dramatically and feed on herbivorous fish like surgeonfish and parrotfish that keep algae from growing on the reefs and choking out the coral. They also affect commercial stocks and the economy in some areas. In Chesapeake Bay where scallops and oysters are important fisheries, the absence of sharks allows skates and rays to increase in numbers and decimate the shellfish beds where they feed.

It is long past time to address this important environmental issue. It is unfortunate that the consumption of shark fin soup is a tradition of Asian cultures, because they often take the heat for this practice. However, there is a growing effort in these countries to downplay the value of shark fin soup and to limit the trade in the fins. Celebrities including basketball star Yao Ming, members of the Chinese Olympic team, and actors Jackie Chan, Tony Leung and my favorite, Michelle Yeoh, all work towards educating the Chinese population about this issue. In our country celebrities including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley, Kate Hudson and Ed Norton (who occasionally dives Catalina) are involved.

For more information on the gruesome practice of shark finning, I recommend that my readers watch Rob Stewart's documentary "Sharkwater" or view WildAid's YouTube video "Planet in Peril: Shark Finning" or their PSAs by movie director Ang Lee and basketball star Yao Ming.

© 2011 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM 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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Shark fins drying in the sun and "shark fin soup;" soupfin shark killed by anglers off Catalina (photo courtesy of
Stacey and Randy Tucker, and the great white shark that will seek revenge if you eat shark fin soup!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2011 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia