“1.21 Gigawatts” is a weekly science column covering local and national science news, as well as wildlife and conservation. Sarah Keartes is an ocean-obsessed junior studying journalism and marine biology. For more science mind candy, follow this Attenborough wannabe on Twitter.
Throughout the first week of the term, the hustle and bustle surrounding the campus book store resembles that of a Savannah watering hole. Buzzing about the perimeter is a diverse blend of organisms: “Jazzed Jenny,” a hyperactive creature who has had her fill of early morning caffeine; “Barely-There Billy,” moseying his way to class against all primal instinct; and “Miserable Madison,” low on much-needed resources after purchasing this round of textbooks.
There I sat lurking—a self-proclaimed nature nerd armed with a whiteboard waiting to prey on the minds of spring students, posing the question “Do you know what shark finning is?”
Around forty students took the bait and ventured a guess. While many of them penned their responses with confidence and conviction, not a single one answered correctly.
“Shark finning is riding sharks like Manny the shark guy,” one student wrote.
The incorrect responses continued, with students most commonly defining shark finning as “shark fishing,” “cutting off a shark’s [dorsal] fin,” and “making shark into soup.” Close, but no cigar. Let’s start with the soup.
Shark fin or “chì” soup has long been served as a symbol of wealth and class in Chinese culture. The simple soup which is comprised of pricey meat from the shark’s fins, along with a few traditional ingredients, boasts price tags of more than $100 per bowl. While the majority of fin meat sold in world markets does supply demand for chì soup ingredients, not all fins for sale in markets are the result of “finning.”
Shark finning does not just mean removing shark fins, nor is it synonymous with shark fishing. The term actually refers to the practice of removing the fins from a shark while the animal is still alive and aboard the shipping vessel. Once removed, the shark is dumped overboard to bleed to death. Lovely.
Why dump the sharks? Shark fin meat is vastly more valuable than the meat from the animal’s body, so by dumping sharks overboard, fishermen are able to use smaller boats and retrieve more fins at less cost to the industry. This gruesome practice is wildly unsustainable as large populations can be overfished rapidly by small fishing operations.
Shark finning has become one of the hottest topics on the marine conservation scene, sparking heated debates and nabbing the attention of many activists and politicians. But like our sample of students, many conservationists, bloggers, and shark supporters misconstrue the term.
Who cares? Shark fishing is “bad.” If the issue is brought to the forefront, why does it matter?
In order to better understand this, let’s take a trip to yester-year. Since the dreaded “duh-nuh…duh-nuh” theme song first made its appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, sharks have stared in more than forty horror films. This rise to stardom helped secure our finned-foes as one of the media’s most menacing monsters.
As technology and continued research allow us to become more environmentally aware, we’ve jumped to the other side. We watch “Shark Week” by the millions, we eat up Planet Earth and soak up David Attenborough’s narration, we are going green, we post, we forward, we petition, we tweet—we are part of the solution, right?
This is where we run into problems. Just like shark-slasher films polarized the way we looked at sharks, the gruesome practice of finning featured in blog posts, tweets, articles, and online petitions with little explanation of alternative fishing methods agitates the battle between fishing communities and conservationists, devaluing the work of those searching for a more sustainable solution.
This has become a prominent issue for shark biologists like David Shiffman.
“Increasing the level of confusion and misconception that’s already out there only makes things worse for the oceans, and demonizing responsible fishing practices can undo decades of progress made by those who do understand the issues,” Shiffman said.
Think you now know which sharks have been “finned?” Take the Quiz!
Top image by Nicholas Wang. Illustration by Lily Nelson.