Having just returned from a diving trip to the Galapagos Islands, the news that California may soon join Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon in banning shark fin soup was a pleasant surprise. The Galapagos are the site of some of the earliest research about evolution and they are also a designated a protected marine reserve (although poaching remains a problem). These attributes make the island chain a major draw for divers drawn to observing sharks – Hammerheads, Galapagos, Silkies, and the elusive Whale Shark. It is nothing short of wondrous to make eye contact with these magnificent and shy creatures and observe their gentle curiosity.
From this perspective, the growing demand for shark fin soup and the risk of extinction this ancient, apex species face are mind-boggling. But that is where this is headed. Shark fin soup, deep Chinese cultural history notwithstanding, smacks of conspicuous consumption and aspirational spending. How else to explain a food purchase for as much as $100/bowl and where the key ingredient adds virtually no flavor!
In California, where many Chinese-American politicians support the ban and bill AB376, the opposition to the bill comes from businesses with a stake in the market – Asian Food importers and distributors. To better understand the tragedy unfolding in our oceans and on our restaurant tables, I was curious – exactly how big is the market for shark fins?
Most of the information quantifying the shark fin market comes from a study published in 2006. The estimates that 26M to as high as 70M sharks are slaughtered mercilessly every year come from a scientist who infiltrated Hong Kong shark fin auction houses. We can thank Shelley C. Clarke and her team who cleverly and courageously amassed data “on the street” in a city recognized as an epicenter for the trade.
The market price of a pound of shark fins is valued at $200 although individual shark fins can run as high as $300. Using the median range of sharks killed for their fins, one study estimates 1.7M metric tons of annual shark catch. Using the current ‘legal’ regulations which require fins to be no more than 5% of the weight of the shark carcass, my calculations point to a market in excess of $37B! This would seem conservative, given growth in demand since the years of the study’s data (1996 – 2000), as well as obvious violations of existing regulations – evidenced by commonplace observation and display of the vast variety of shark fin sizes. It should also be noted these estimates do not cover sharks killed for meat.
Sadly, with a market this large, it’s easy to see why traders would fight to keep it, and say to hell with shark decimation.
Why do sharks matter, anyway? Besides a respect and reverence for a species that has inhabited our planet for 400 million years, as an apex species, these top predators of the food chain act as regulators of the food web. The ocean, which humans rely on for food, will undoubtedly be altered without these creatures. Unfortunately, humans are not very good at looking at future consequences of present day excesses. But it was encouraging to this shark-lover to see a study that analyzed the value of a shark to the economy of the island nation of Palau. They quantified the value of a live shark over its lifetime at $1.9M vs. $108 dead. This subsequently lead to Palau becoming a shark sanctuary.
Will we drive sharks to extinction? It remains to be seen. California Governor Jerry Brown’s signature on AB376 is an important step to crush the demand for shark fins. It sets an important example that others will surely follow.