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Would you ever eat a shark? Although you might not, a huge and growing number of the planet's citizens would — in a heartbeat.
Shark fin is a highly sought-after delicacy in many Asian nations, particularly among the Chinese. Revered for its rarity, expense and prestige — “Look how cool I am! I just ate a man-eater!” — shark fin soup is reportedly as flabby in flavor as it is rich in cruelty.
That's why I was disgusted to learn that only a few states have laws that expressly forbid shark finning (the practice of harvesting the dorsal fins of sharks). And with the recent dismissal of a proposed bill in Florida, it’s clear that there’s little appetite for ending the practice, disgusting as it is for both environmental and welfare reasons.
Shark finning requires little skill and the practice often flies under the radar — rendering its illegality a moot point in many cases.
That’s because there’s no serious market for the rest of the beast. Given the huge overhead cost of chilling and processing meat at sea, taking the whole thing wouldn’t be economically feasible.
But taking a shark aboard for a slice-and-dice on the sly? That’s absolutely doable. All they really want is the fin, and all they need to do is whip out a knife and — voilà! — free money. Stash it in a clandestine cooler below deck and who’ll be the wiser?
The problem is that fins aren’t dispensable. Sharks need them. Even if they survive the trauma and the blood loss from the harvesting process, sharks cannot survive without dorsal fins. Without them, they can’t navigate and will fall to the ocean floor and die — presumably with a high degree of suffering, seeing as they’ll be in pain and can’t oxygenate whatever blood they have left if they can’t run water past their gills.
Despite its title, a book called Demon Fish by environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin is highly sympathetic to the plight of the shark. According to Eilperin, scientists estimate that up to 73 million sharks a year are caught just to supply the shark fin soup industry. Shocking, right?
In her book, she also raises an interesting irony: Sharks kill only four to five people a year worldwide. We perversely and egocentrically assume this great predator has it in for us. Yet we’re the ultimate predators. All in the service of our Spielberg-fueled, us-against-them demonization of the man-eating beast — not to mention our craven excesses.
Unfortunately, these statistics aren’t disturbing enough to keep the fishing industry from caring a whit about whether or not its nets nab a few extra sharks, along with tuna, swordfish and other big-bucks predators we probably shouldn’t be eating either.
Shark fin soup truly is a trophy dinner and not much else. What’s worse is that, by all accounts, it’s so heavily flavored with pork and chicken that you’d have an ice cube’s chance in hell of tasting the actual shark. But, as with all else that screams luxury, it’s not about reality. Rather, it has more to do with cultural norms and human misconceptions than taste.
The rational among us can only hope that others come to understand that eliciting extreme suffering in an animal is a bad thing and that the true value of these magnificent beasts lies in their contribution to the sustainability of their ecosystems.
Unfortunately, as with seal fur, elephant tusks, tiger teeth and white rhino horns, elusiveness, perceived utility and rarity — environmental, political, financial, health-related or otherwise — seem to be an inducement to harm rather than a call to responsible action.
Too bad Florida (my home state) missed its opportunity to stand with the rational on this one.
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