I may not have had much practice in self-denial, but I’ve found it remarkably easy to follow the suggestions of concerned lobbyists by saying, ‘NO!’ to shark fin soup. At a personal level it hasn’t been much of a sacrifice, but it did leave me feeling warm and fuzzy about my small but positive contribution to the cause of marine conservation: until I began to wonder why it is that all of the other bits and pieces of a shark’s anatomy seemingly fail to attract similar levels of concern?
Slicing the fins from a living shark before tossing the crippled creature back into the ocean to die is, by any measure, an act of barbaric cruelty; particularly when the only outcome is a small bowl of rather bland soup. On the other hand, ‘harvesting’ sharks for commercial purposes – where every useful organ and tissue is put to good use – appears to be perfectly acceptable?
Which probably helps explain why I’ve never had to fight my way through hordes of placard-waving demonstrators attempting a blockade of the local Fish and Chip shop where ‘flake’ – a pseudonym for shark – is regularly served up with chips. Neither does there appear to be any concerted outcry or boycott of those shops and stores selling wallets, belts, shoes and other fashion accessories manufactured from shark skin: Or health food shops selling pills, potions and capsules containing shark product; or the pharmacies and chemist shops that stock ointments containing shark cartilage used in the relief and cure of acne, pimples and other skin disorders.
Nor – to the best of my knowledge – does anyone seem interested enough to protest the use of shark liver oil as a principle ingredient in haemorrhoid preparations. All of which leads me to think that the thoughtless needs of a few arseholes plays an even greater role in putting sharks on the endangered species list than simply slurping a bowl or two of shark-fin soup.
Not that there’s anything new about trying to protect marine life and safeguard the ocean’s resources. As long ago as 1899, King Oscar II of Sweden – concerned over the introduction of trawl netting and its impact on the North Sea herring fisheries – convened a meeting of all of the nations of Europe with industries dependent on fishing. Its purpose was to examine ways of conserving the natural economy of the oceans and halt what, even then, was considered to be an unsustainable plundering of available fish stocks.
More than one hundred and ten years later and the world’s nations are still unable to agree on a universal protocol to protect dwindling ocean food supplies. In the interim the North Sea herring fisheries have disappeared, along with the traditional North Atlantic cod fishing grounds. Even the Southern Oceans – long considered to be infinite in their ability to provide edible harvests for an expanding world population – are now at risk of over-exploitation.
Sharks may be way down on the totem pole of ‘sustainable resources’, a phrase that – like many of the other, must-do-things-to-save-the-planet clichés – has most relevance when it doesn’t involve personal hardship. Nevertheless, sharks still deserve far more respect than we now give them.
Divers have always had a strong affinity with sharks. Particularly In the early years of recreational diving when it was assumed that all sharks were killers posing a potential threat to anyone who dived. Some, a very few, may have been. Others were not. Not killers, that is.
JohnO recently told me about his early diving experiences with wobbegongs, the seemingly harmless carpet-shark commonly found in Sydney waters. “Divers with little understanding of different shark behaviours would often tweak a wobbegong’s tail.” He said, “In some instances, the shark would rapidly turn around and latch onto the diver with teeth that, while small, were still sufficient to puncture a wet suit and cause minor injury; particularly embarrassing – and painful – if it happened to be on the crutch.
“We regularly warned people foolish enough to engage in this practice”, he said, “to wait for a minute or so, until the wobbegong gave its customary ‘cough’ – a prelude to getting a better grip – and then to quickly pull the trapped appendage free.”
Regrettably, sharks don’t have that same luxury of being able to cough and pull themselves free from human attentions. Giving up shark fin soup may help stamp out unnecessarily cruel practices, but it does little to help conserve a creature that, if it became extinct, would take with it other groups of creatures who rely on those same sharks for their own survival.
Like Walt Kelly’s comic strip character, Pogo, said in the 1979 Earth Day poster, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”