They caught one. The fisherman quickly drags the frantic shark up to the bloodstained deck of the boat. The shark has a large metal hook through its mouth, protruding grotesquely from its lower jaw, dripping blood and chunks of skin. Soon, a second man stands on top of the helpless animal and methodically hacks off its precious fins with a hot metal blade, the treasure they came for. When the job is done, the two men kick and push the bloodied, dying animal off the boat and back into the water. It bobs up to the surface of the ocean one last time before slowly sinking to the bottom. Unable to swim, it will drown or be eaten alive by other wildlife in the ocean.
This practice is known as shark finning. As fins are primarily used for shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy, they can cost more than $300 a pound. Shark fins are big business, and every year more than 100 million sharks pay the ultimate price for this expensive dish. Because the rest of the shark’s meat is considered inferior, fishers find it more cost-effective to simply dump out the rest of the still-breathing sharks.
In an attempt to curb this inhumane and destructive practice, California Assembly members Paul Fong and Jared Huffman introduced a bill banning the possession, sale and consumption of shark fins.
The potential ban has elicited angry accusation from many Chinese-Americans that this is little more than a veiled assault on their culture. It’s a traditional dish, they claim, a staple of fine Chinese cuisine served at weddings and important family occasions. Chinese-Americans worry that without this dish, their culinary heritage will be permanently diluted. Restaurant owners who sell shark fin soup also worry about the potential loss of one of their most profitable dishes. However, tradition is not moral justification. No amount of cultural legacy can change the cruel nature of shark finning, or decrease the ecological devastation it unleashes. In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported that, as a Chinese-American, Fong grew up eating the infamous shark fin soup. Yet he decided to lead the opposition to the dish after learning how the prized fins are brutally acquired.
Clearly, shark finning is extremely cruel, but the practice is also wreaking havoc deep beneath the ocean’s surface.
The extensive fishing of sharks, mostly for their fins, is placing a tremendous toll on shark populations, many of which are being hunted to the brink of extinction. Many species are down to as little as 10 percent of their original population levels in just a few decades. Some of the most at-risk species have special legal protections, but because of the way sharks are captured and killed, it is virtually impossible to differentiate between protected and unprotected sharks.
The weakening of such a key component of the ocean’s ecosystem can have far-reaching consequences, bringing the whole system to its knees. Smaller fish, facing life without predators, will experience temporary population booms. They will eat more than the ecosystem can sustain, effectively eliminating their own food supplies — which is basically what we are doing now — leading to ocean-wide depletion and starvation.
Alternatives to an outright ban have also been suggested. Bans on finning — by matching the weight of shark fins brought by a fishing crew to the weight of shark bodies — have been proposed, as well as stricter rules protecting endangered sharks. In theory, these laws would provide a more humane way for shark fins to be consumed. However, these laws have been attempted before in many other countries and simply do not work. They have been unable to cut down on shark finning, and they ignore the effect shark fishing is having on ocean ecosystems. The only way to stop shark finning is an outright ban on the consumption of shark fins, regardless of how they were captured.
Of course, California’s ban won’t solve the problem. Demand for shark fins is driven by a growing middle class in China. But a ban in the U.S. can lead to increased international pressure to stop this destructive practice. We cannot continue to support a system that kills millions of sharks each year in such an inhumane way, especially when it is done for little more than profit and some chewy, tasteless cartilage soup.
— Leonardo Castaneda is a business administration freshman.
— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.