Friday, 22 Jun 2001

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

This is Roger Payne, writing to you from the Odyssey about one of the most appalling fishing practices now being pursued — shark finning. This is the collection of shark fins to be used to make shark fin soup. Shark finning has become almost unbelievably lucrative owing to the high price shark fins command in cities like Singapore, Taipei, and Hong Kong, where a bowl of shark fin soup can cost $90. Most of the sharks caught in America have reached that market — but just their fins. Most of the bodies were dumped back into the sea.

Finned sharks.

Photo: Papua New Guinea National Fisheries

There are many varieties of shark fin soup, but the part of the fin used in making it is just the fibers. They are said not to add flavor, only texture. What gives the soup its flavor are its main ingredients: chicken broth and ham. So the sharks of the world are being destroyed to make ham-flavored chicken soup with a slightly different texture. To get fins for shark fin soup, fishers catch any shark by any means (longlining is the usual technique). Of the roughly 400 shark species known, 100 are caught for shark fin soup, including most of the larger species. So valuable are their fins and so lacking the restrictions that the young of larger species get finned as well.

The combined weight of all of a shark’s fins is only about one-twentieth of its total weight. Getting one ton of fins requires the killing and disposing of 20 tons of shark. It is estimated that somewhere between 40 and 70 million sharks are killed each year worldwide, a take that has caused shark populations everywhere to crash in the past 10 years. Sharks are devastated by heavy fishing because they are slow-growing, late-maturing, and have few young each year (some species only reproduce every other year).

When a shark is caught and boated, its fins are cut off and the now finless animal is tossed overboard. Unable to swim but still alive, the shark must slowly sink to the bottom, where it presumably dies a terrible, lingering death from some unknown cause — infection, starvation, being picked to pieces while still alive by crabs or by other scavengers, and who knows what else. A fisherman in New Jersey reported catching a shark that he figured must have escaped while it was being finned, for it still had its tail fin. The longline hook on which it had presumably been caught earlier and from which it must have been held while its other fins were sliced off, was still in its mouth. This horrific practice is both incredibly cruel and a waste of marine resources.

Because they can be sold for so much, shark fins have been fished out in Asia. Shark meat now sells for $0.20/kg, whereas the fins are worth 850 times as much ($170/kg). In Hong Kong, they can reach up to $500/kg, 2,500 times as much as the meat. Having their fins sliced off while they are still alive must therefore now be the fate of 98 percent of all sharks caught worldwide.

Here in Papua New Guinea, tuna fishers are permitted to take sharks as bycatch, but they often target sharks instead of tuna, since a hold full of shark fins is worth a great deal more than a hold full of tuna. Back in mid-February, after complaints by local fishermen that ships were fishing too close to their reef off Alotau, a Taiwanese-registered mothership along with three longliners were detained and impounded at the main wharf in Port Moresby. The vessels had been licensed to catch tuna, but in just one of them, officials found 50 tons of sharks and only two tons of tuna. While sharks are an acceptable bycatch for tuna fishers, this kind of ratio is ludicrous. The problem comes from the fact that no fixed, legal ratio has been specified to dictate how much bycatch may be taken for how much catch. So fishermen who want to fin sharks go for a tuna license, which gives them the right to catch as many sharks as they like along with the odd tuna. In many cases, sharks constitute more than 90 percent of the “tuna” catch. The impounded vessels are an example in which sharks constituted over 96 percent of the catch — it is really the tuna that is the bycatch in this operation.

It is clear that sharks cannot breed fast enough to keep up with the current demand. As a result, many shark species are now threatened with extinction. Finning has been banned in the Atlantic, but is growing fast in the Pacific. Countries such as the U.S. and Australia have moved to ban the practice. As usual, Japan is dragging its feet. Hopefully, we will all soon realize that these animals cannot possibly reproduce fast enough to keep up with human advances in fishing technology. But will we realize soon enough? And meanwhile, what kind of comment does shark finning make on our species? Of just how much casual cruelty is the human being capable? Where are the limits? Practices like shark finning seem to me to offer further evidence that the missing link between the ape and the human being is man.

And I forgot to mention the final evidence of madness — the rising belief in Asian markets that powdered shark parts have aphrodisiac qualities. How tragic that species such as tigers and sharks should be destroyed because of a baseless hope that they can do something for which there are now proven drugs such as Viagra — drugs which actually do work and which would, I suspect, exceed any shark aphrodisiac user’s wildest fantasies.

It occurs to me that perhaps one of the most useful steps in conserving wildlife right now would be to make Viagra available to the Asian aphrodisiac market. It might require the kind of adjustment in price that was more or less forced on drug companies in order to make AIDS drugs available for developing nations at a cost the users could bear. But by this m
eans, the makers of Viagra might be able to save tigers, sharks, bears, Amazon River dolphins, and a host of other species. Yes, I realize that what we don’t need is an even-faster rate of human population growth. But if anyone out there thinks that a man determined enough to drink a potion of powdered tiger bones is going to give up trying to have sex, well … I suspect they better think again.

Thus ends this day.