Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Cost of Shark Fin Soup

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s killer shark Jaws claimed it’s first victim within five minutes of the film’s opening credits, many a happy tourist to tropical shores has stared into the consuming blackness of the ocean and heard in their mind a simple, almost crude alternating pattern of two cello and bass cords, signaling the presence of some menacing unseen danger.

Beginning slowly, that oscar winning two-note score was supposedly written to mimic a shark's heartbeat, rising to a frenzied and shrieking climax as it approaches its prey, leaving viewers considering the film’s tagline and wondering if indeed it Is it safe to go in the water?

In fact golf is a riskier pastime than swimming in the ocean with sharks. More golfers are struck by lightning and killed each year than the total number of shark related deaths. While conservationists claim that 38 million sharks were killed by artisanal fishermen and long line trawlers in 2007, no more than 12 people were killed by sharks in the same time.

The end of sharks in the Indian Ocean is now being predicted by marine conservationists who claim it can be directly linked to demand by Chinese collectors for shark fins to make shark-fin soup. In the 1990s, as sharks and sea cucumbers, an east asian aphrodisic, became rare in Asian waters, traders looked further afield to Africa and the Western Indian Ocean to meet the demand caused by rapid growth of Asian economies for these high end products.

A small bowl of shark-fin soup can cost up to $100 USD in a high-end Hong Kong restaurant. Two pounds of shark fins could set a buyer back just under $1000 USD. Similarly sea cucumbers, a far eastern delicacy with supposed aphrodisiac properties, are also in high demand.

Shark fin soup is used to celebrate important events in the Chinese culture. The cartilaginous fins, when dried, form a texture and shape that are just like noodles. According to tradition, the longer the noodle is, the longer the diner's life will be. Since the soup is thought of as a prestige delicacy, consumption of it has risen along with China's economic growth. Weddings, anniversaries and other occasions often include the soup in a place of honour on menus.

Andrew Cooke a Marine Environmental Specialist based in the indian ocean island of Madagascar claims that within 10 years sharks may have all but disappeared from the coastal waters of Madagascar causing serious environmental and economic problems for the population as well as having global implications. “The intense effort directed towards fishing sharks has led to their decimation along the entire coastline of Madagascar” said Cooke.

While some say educating the fishermen is the answer Dr Man Wai Rabenevanana, head of the Marine science institute in Tulear, southern Madagascar, says that this traditional sensitisation approach overlooks a key part of the problem, namely the impact of poverty on an island where 80% of the population live on less than 2 US dollars a day. “It is difficult when the population is poor and then the Chinese come and show them dollar bills, how can they refuse? So educate the fishermen yes, but you must first educate the consumers of shark fins and sea cucumbers if you want anything to change” said Rabenevanana.

The Vezu are the traditional coastal fishing peoples of Madagascar. These artisanal fishermen only started fishing for sharks in the early 1990s specifically for export to Asian markets. Fishermen would throw back the dead carcass or only eat the meat in times of extreme food scarcity and there is no tradition of eating shark fin in Madagascar. Most of the fishermen who search for this lucrative product have never tasted it.

Migration for work in the mining sector and to escape severe droughts, have caused the population of the South Eastern Madagascan town of Tulear to double in the last 4 years alone. Population pressures have led to overfishing, which is forcing Vezu fishermen in coastal villages like Itampolo, to take their wooden pirogues further out to sea and to dive deeper to the seabed to find fish. Sharks and sea cucumbers are the most lucrative catch possible because of the amounts Chinese collectors will pay for them.

28-year-old Vezu fishing woman Lidine Go, pictured with her son above, can make 100,000 Ariary (£32 GBP) per kilo of dried shark fins. It is the most lucrative thing she sells but she says it is hard to find because months can go by before they have enough to sell. Sharks are only caught every few weeks now whereas just a few years ago they used to get 5 or 6 sharks a week. Depleting stocks are posing a serious economic problem for the Vezu and threatening the continuation of their way of life.

Spielberg’s opening scene and his equally gruesome finale are both memorable scenes in cinema despite the fact that the mechanical shark doesn’t even always convince. The terror of those screeching notes is sufficient but for sharks, it is no longer safe to go in the water. Unfortunately for them, there seem to be nowhere else to go, and nowhere to hide.

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