Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in China and other parts of Asia. It is served at weddings, celebrations, and during holidays such as the Lunar New Year. The broth of the soup is the star of the show, with the fin itself, which is purely cartilage, offering no nutritional or flavor contribution. In fact, it contains relatively high levels of mercury, which can cause brain damage. Shark fins thicken soup, but could easily be substituted with arrowroot starch or another kind of common thickener. As such a nonessential ingredient, it could easily be replaced in the soup. For the sharks, however, the use of the fins comes at a great price and upsets the delicate balance of the marine food chain.
When acquiring the fins for the soup, fishermen take the shark onboard the boat, chop off the fins, and then discard the shark back into the ocean, where it dies from blood loss, suffocation, or is eaten by other animals. By only keeping the fins, the fishermen save a considerable amount of room on their boat. If they had to keep the entire animal (which isn’t worth nearly as much), they would be limited on payload potential. With each fin fetching about US$50-150 and some species getting $10,000-20,000, it is no wonder that that between 20-70 million sharks are killed annually solely for their fins. However, the environmental cost of shark finning far exceeds that which can be measured in monetary value.
Sharks, which have thrived on Earth for 420 million years, are on the verge of extinction. Global population levels for some species are down 99%, but even if we stopped immediately, population regrowth will be slow. Sharks do not reproduce very quickly or very often. Female sharks typically take a long time to reach maturity to reproduce. Depending on the species, gestation of live pups could take as long as 22 months. If sharks were to go extinct and the oceans lost an apex predator, there would be dire and unforeseen consequences.
The effects of a decrease in shark populations is already being seen on coral reefs. With fewer sharks, populations of midlevel predators are increasing uncontrollably and wiping out the smaller creatures that live on the reef. These small creatures eat the algae and generally perform housekeeping tasks for the coral, keeping it healthy. Without these smaller creatures, coral reefs may not be able to maintain their integrity.
Luckily, people are starting to notice that shark finning is a huge problem. India, which is #2 in the world for shark fishing, has banned the practice. Fishermen who go after sharks will be required to bring the entire animal to shore, which will drastically reduce the rate at which they can be collected.
The act of finning for fisherman in the United States has been banned since 2000, but cities and states are now passing legislation to prohibit the sale and possession of the fins as well.
Despite this progress, there is still a market. While the potential for profit exists, poachers will continue to deplete the oceans of an animal which has been on Earth 50 million years longer than trees.