When Cindy, from My Diving Holidays, asked me if she could write a guest post for Travel With Kat about shark fin soup and the devastating knock-on effect that it has on eco-systems, I was eager to know more. I hope you find Cindy’s post as fascinating as I did and that you will add your support to the campaign to stop shark finning.


The modern consequences of an ancient tradition

You may have heard of this Asian delicacy as more and more celebrities join the anti shark ­fin soup campaign. From world ­renowned chef Gordon Ramsay to the British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming, international voices are starting to have an impact. However, have you ever wondered what all the fuss is about?

What’s the big deal about shark fin soup?

Traditionally a prestigious delicacy served to the Emperor of China and honored guests, shark fin soup has recently been adopted by the masses. As the Chinese economy breaks new records of growth every year, its population is becoming increasingly wealthy. This dramatic expansion in China’s middle and upper classes in turn leads to an ever-growing demand for shark fin soup. Of significant cultural importance, this expensive meal is a way to demonstrate new-found social status.

Shark fin soup

Shark fin soup by Andrew Fung via Wikimedia Commons

This cultural appetite for shark fins would not be much of a problem if it wasn’t for one thing, China has a population of over 1 billion people. And that’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

What if all sharks became extinct?

As sharks cannot be farmed, the wild shark fisheries are declining at an alarming rate. According to research published in the journal Marine Policy, aggressive overfishing kills 100 Million sharks each year. Taking into account unreported illegal catches, scientists believe the numbers may be as high as 273 million.

Shark fins

Shark fins by Cloneofsnake via Wikimedia Commons

Similar to humans, sharks mature late in life and have only a few pups. Although they have been around for the past 400 million years, their low rate of reproduction makes them highly vulnerable to overfishing. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, up to ⅓ of shark species are currently threatened with extinction. Most of them do not benefit from any sorts of legal protection. Sharks have a bad press and are certainly not as cute as dolphins or pandas. However, their presence in the ocean is critical to our survival. Indeed, these apex predators keep the marine ecosystem in balance.

At the top of the food chain, these predators improve the biodiversity of the marine life by doing what they do best – hunting and eating. From the health of coral reefs to the quality of the sea bed, the widespread depletion of shark numbers has a cascading effect on the ecosystem.

A healthy coral reef by Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

A healthy coral reef by Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

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The colourful, algae-eating parrot fish by Dean Croshere

When sharks are removed from an area, some species find themselves without any natural predators and their numbers grow rapidly threatening the survival of their own prey. This has already been observed in a number of places. Belize, for example, has seen the health of its coral reef declined. As sharks became rarer, the population of groupers, shot through the roof. As a ripple effect, these carnivorous fish quickly decimated the population of parrot fish. The latter is an algae­ eating fish safeguarding the coral reefs. The presence of algae is a double-­edge sword – too much or too little algae, and the coral will die. It has to be “just right”. An algae dominated coral reef looks like a dead, murky, underwater swamp.

Algae covered coral reef

Algae dominated, dying coral reef by Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

This real­-life case study shows how an imbalance in the ocean’s ecosystem can lead to a chain of events that will impact on all of the marine life. Indeed, it is estimated that these rainforests of the seas support up to 25% of all known marine species.

What would a change in the ocean biodiversity and character of the food web mean for us ?

In the fight against global warming, the ocean may just prove to be our best ally. It removes up to half of the greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide). As the true Earth’s lung, the ocean produces more oxygen than all the rainforests combined. In addition, the ocean helps control our planet’s temperature and weather. Marine conservation is therefore an essential part of saving the Earth (and ourselves). Don’t just plant a tree, but better still, save a shark instead!

Diving with sharks and helping to reverse the trend

Shark finning, however cruel, is a very profitable business. A kilogram of these can sell for up to $650, a small fortune for most fishermen. However, sharks may prove more valuable alive than dead.

Shark fin soup

Hammerhead shark, Cocos Island, Costa Rica

A number of studies point out that diving tourism, while relying on the appeal of coral reefs, may also benefit shark populations. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found out that the global trend in worldwide shark tourism generated over US$314 million per year. According to a 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a single reef shark in Pulau (Micronesia) can contribute anywhere from $179,000 to $2 million to the local economy over its lifetime. In this area, shark diving generates 8% of the country’s GDP, approximating US$18million per year. Another study, supporting shark conservation and shark diving in the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, estimated the value of a hammerhead shark to the tourism industry is approaching US $1.6 million.

Diving with sharks

There are many ways you can help sharks. As the studies suggest, shark tourism can be a viable economic engine.With over 500 species, only 5 are considered potentially dangerous. The vast majority of sharks are harmless to humans. When diving with sharks, however, be sure to select dive centres that take marine conservation seriously.  Too many divers and too any boats can also be very harmful to coral reefs. 

Spread the word

“Sharing is caring” has never been truer. Help get the word out about shark finning and share this article through your social media networks.

Sign a petition

You may think China is a world away, yet there’s a lot you can do to change the fate of sharks. A number of petitions are pressuring governments and companies alike to ban shark finning. With increased public awareness, Cathay Pacific was the first airline to stop carrying shark fins in late 2012. It paved the way for many to come. In 2014, 24 airlines became shark­-free including Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, Qantas and Thai Airways. Furthermore, hotel chains, such as the Peninsula and Shangri­La, have followed suit and pledged to take shark fin soup off their menus.

America – It’s Time to Ban the Shark Fin Trade!
Canada – Shark Fin Import Ban Petition
Australia – Stop Shark Culling that is Endangering the Great White Shark Existence
New Zealand – Shark Finning Petition
Europe – Stop Uncontrolled Shark Fishing Petition

Time is running out

As shark populations plummet year on year, there is not much time left to reverse the situation.

Despite their bad rep, sharks are critical to the health of our oceans and deserve our full attention. Whether it is by sharing a post, diving with sharks on your next holiday or adding your voice to a petition, every little bit can make a difference.


CV-photo

Cindy and Laurent are a French couple that completely changed career paths, becoming a Yoga Teacher (Cindy) and a PADI scuba diving instructor (Laurent). They now run an online booking platform for diving experiences, My Diving Holidays and are passionate about both their work and marine conservation. Follow Cindy and My Diving Holidays on Facebook, G+ and Twitter, @MyDivingHoliday.

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