Sharks and the culinary clash of culture and conservation: why are we not considering the health consequences of shark consumption?

AuthorJefferies, Cameron


Sharks are the much maligned apex predators that frequent horror films and sensationalized nature documentaries. Sharks have come to represent the unknown; a toothed menace. Perceptions are starting to shift, and sharks are increasingly becoming the substance of conservation efforts and political debate at all levels of governance.

Sharks are harvested in astounding numbers for their fins, which are the key component of shark fin soup. While it is difficult to know exactly how many sharks are killed each year for their fins, the estimate proffered by biologists and widely accepted by non-governmental organizations is between 73 (1) and 100 million. (2) Scientists continue to warn policy makers that shark populations cannot withstand such intense harvesting and that if action is not taken soon to reduce this pressure we may very well push many shark species to extinction. (3)

In response to this threat, certain jurisdictions (at the national, provincial/state, and even municipal level) have enacted bans on shark fin possession and trade, with the goal of reducing the availability of shark fin soup and therefore the need to keep killing sharks for their fins. The debate on how to properly regulate shark fin soup consumption (assuming regulation is justified at all) and the future of shark conservation generally, has centered around the appropriateness of using the law to essentially prohibit the continuation of a cultural tradition. In this article I will briefly describe the decline of sharks and the current status of shark conservation, the legal response to date, and then demonstrate that the health aspects of consuming shark fin soup serve has not received due consideration and serves as further justification for heightened regulation. Finally, I address the use of shark products in alternative medicine as an emerging issue in shark conservation, emphasizing the largely unsubstantiated status of the health benefits associated with shark cartilage.

Their Decline

The current extinction pressure facing many shark species can be succinctly summarized as follows: shark fins are harvested for their use in shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy that has been served at banquets and celebratory functions since the Ming Dynasty (circa 1300-1600 C.E.), if not earlier. (4) Sharks, like many other marine species whose conservation status is hotly contested (i.e. whales and blue-fin tuna), are in many ways the victims of the fluid, expansive, and largely unregulated medium in which they exist. Specifically, many shark species do not live solely within the territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zone of one nation, triggering the classic "Tragedy of the Commons" (5) problem associated with regulating species that fall outside of pure national jurisdiction, and whose regulation fits most appropriately within the scope of a cooperative international regime.

China remains the main destination for shark fins, but it is mainly the practices of the fishermen from the nations that supply China that has attracted the ire of conservationists and the sympathy of ordinary citizens across the globe. Most notable is shark finning, the practice whereby the fins of a captured shark are sliced off and the fin-less fish is returned to the ocean to die rather unceremoniously. (6) The reality is that shark fins are worth considerably more than shark meat, and for fishermen it makes economic sense to dump relatively worthless carcasses to maximize space for valuable fins. (7) I believe it is appropriate to characterize the international legal response to this issue as an unmitigated failure; currently, only the great white shark, whale shark, and basking shark receive protection from the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. (8) As various options about how to reduce shark fin soup consumption in China are considered, other nations have responded in the face of international inaction.

The Legal Response

The response that has emerged since July of 2010 has been to address the problem by attempting to limit availability of shark fin soup and the legality of possessing shark fins. Nations have acted to tighten anti-finning laws in an attempt to reduce the controversial practice in their national waters, but this alone is insufficient to halt finning in international waters or in jurisdictions that do not prohibit it.

Hawaii, led by state Senator Clayton Hee, implemented innovative legislation in 2010 that banned the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins. (9) Unlike previous attempts, Hawaii's effort essentially elevated shark fi ns to contraband and prohibited private possession. In this new regime, restaurants were given a one-year grace period to use current stocks, but after that it would be unlawful to possess shark fins to be served in shark fin soup.

Other jurisdictions have followed Hawaii's example. Specifically, California, Oregon, and Washington State have enacted similar bans, as has Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. (10) Here in Canada, action has started at the municipal level in Ontario where Brantford, Oakville, Mississauga, and most notably Toronto have introduced bylaws that prohibit shark fin possession, trade and consumption. (11) Citizens are continuing to advocate for legislation at all levels of governance through environmental...

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