Dire Delicacy

The Dance

Sharks are a group of fish characterized by a cartilaginous skeleton, five to seven gill slits on the sides of the head, and pectoral fins that are not fused to the head. | Photo: | Shark, Ocean, Risk, Underwater, Beach, Fish, Fin,

Progressing the Fin-Free Movement

I have eaten shark fin a few times in my life, particularly during special dinners with my entire family: a wedding, my grandfather's 70th birthday dinner, occasions of the ilk. I knew the soup was "special" because it was expensive. The soup was delicious; however, the shark fin cartilage itself was flavorless. The soup, without the shark fin, would still be delicious.

I, like many people, never considered how the shark fin ended up in my soup. I also never considered why it was so expensive. In my journey of learning about the process and industry of shark finning, and the seemingly irrevocable consequences behind the delicacy, I have made the choice to stop eating shark fin soup.

The price of this delicacy is expensive, a price that is too high to pay.

Julie Andersen, Founder and Executive Director of Shark Angels, a passionate, global community leading a positive movement to save the sharks (and the ecosystems they serve as a protector for), through education, media, and local grassroots campaigns, attributes the industry of shark finning as the reason for the decline of the shark population. As Andersen states, "100%, there is no other reason for the killing," as there is only a small market for other shark products. Andersen witnessed 7,000 sharks finned in one day, in one port, in Japan.

Shark fin soup is a traditional, cultural delicacy, reserved for special occasions; however within the last 50 years, an increasing amount of people have been eating the soup, coinciding with the increase of the Chinese economy. According to sharkangels.org, a single whale shark fin can sell for an upwards of $50,000 USD. The demand of shark fin far outweighs the supply. The process of attaining the shark fins is brutally cruel. As described by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), an international nonprofit marine wildlife conservation organization, the fishermen catch the sharks, slice off their fins, regardless if the shark is alive. The bodies, some of whom may still be alive, are then tossed back into the water to bleed to death, or be attacked by other sharks or fish. The fins of the shark only amount to 4% of its body weight; 200,000 tons of shark are "thrown back into the sea and discarded."

The dire consequence of the depleting shark population is the impact on the ocean ecosystems they protect. Sharks are apex predators, with the imperative role of keeping all marine life in a healthy homeostasis, regulating the oceans. If the sharks were removed, the effects would be disastrous. Andersen cites a study done on a Chesapeake Bay shellfish company, as there was a mysterious decline in the shellfish. What was discovered was that the population of the Cownose rays had spiked, eating all of the shellfish; this was a direct result of the lack of shark population to regulate the Cownose ray. Andersen also offers a study done in Belize where an abundance of algae was killing the coral reef. What had occurred was the population of parrot fish declined; parrot fish eat the algae. The parrot fish population declined due to the excess of grouper population, since the shark was not there to regulate the grouper. These are only two examples of how vital of a role apex predators'the sharks, play in sustaining a healthy oceanic ecosystem, where organisms are interconnected. A change at one level will result in a trickle-down effect among the organisms lower in the food chain.

According to sharkangels.org, up to 73 million sharks are killed each year, over 11,000 every hour. Unfortunately, most people aren't as zealous to save the sharks, with a misperception of the true nature of sharks, abiding by stereotypical depictions of a vicious monster. "Sharks are not the monsters they are portrayed to be." According to Andersen, of the over 500 species of sharks, only a handful have had the negative instances with humans that have fueled that stigma. As divers, Andersen and those devoted to sharks, have all fallen in love with them, sparking their passion to fight for their survival. To Andersen, "They're more afraid of you," as this is the norm of sharks.

What changed Andersen's perception, and essentially her life, was her first experience in the water with a shark. Andersen was scuba diving in Hawaii, and suddenly, felt this presence. Vividly, she describes looking to her right to find a Hammerhead shark just at arm's length. Andersen initially felt the fear most people would, but then she looked into the eyes of this magnificent creature; what she saw in this shark's eyes, "I saw life, not death." This amazing, "magical moment with this animal" was the catalyst in Andersen's commitment to the shark cause, with the hope of representing them in a positive light, helping more people to understand them. For Andersen, something as simple as opening a dialogue about sharks is the first step in saving them. Andersen fondly recalls a talk she had at a school for at-risk girls in Tampa. There, she spoke with the girls about sharks, which opened a dialogue to spark passions in the 35 girls, creating their own Shark Angels group to ban the sale of shark products in their area.

The most memorable shark dive Andersen had was with an Oceanic Whitetip in the crystal-blue coast of Cat Island in the Bahamas, where their interaction consisted of a breathtaking underwater "dance." "Lost in the moment," Andersen felt "so connected with this animal, [as she was] entranced by the shark. She would roll, I would roll'" What Andersen determined about sharks was evident; sharks are intelligent, curious creatures. The emotional dance demonstrated not only the grace, but also the beauty of this substantial being.

Despite the fact that 50 shark species are considered to be a high-risk of extinction, with the prediction of at least 20 species becoming completely extinct by 2017, there is a huge monetary incentive for the finning of sharks. Fishermen are living in essential poverty as they are paid virtually nothing, unable to support their families. Shark finning is an incentive as supplemental income, a difficult incentive to refuse; an incentive greedy suppliers take advantage of. Sharks facing extinction only raise the sense of urgency. Andersen continues, the burden is placed upon the conservationists to prove why a certain species should be protected; however, when we can see public advocacy movements, it is difficult to debate if that species is, in fact, endangered.

Currently, there are few international laws that adequately protect the sharks (and difficult to enforce), since poaching is rampant, fins are attained illegally, among other challenges. To Andersen, the laws have not caught up with the institution of shark finning; however, if the current laws were effectively enforced, "we would make a greater impact." Unfortunately, current laws are lax; as sharkangels.org cites, although the fisherman may land the shark in compliance with shark finning laws, there is no real market for the meat (where people who are starving are unwilling to eat shark meat), where the body of the shark is then sold as fertilizer of animal feed, which does not justify the necessity for shark fishing, consequently, creating the depletion of the population.

Another horrendous, unfathomable consequence of shark finning: the finning of baby sharks. As the demand is exponentially higher than the supply, coupled with the depleting shark population, fishermen have resorted to finning baby sharks. Sharks take a longer time to mature, as only one or two pups are born each year. Andersen cites a fishing village in Indonesia, where the adult shark population had steadily disappeared within a few years, leaving only the baby sharks. Consequently, fishermen began fishing down the food chain: manta rays, dolphins, dugongs, even turtles. As Andersen observes, we must, therefore, address the demand.

Joining United Conservationists, a conservation group with the belief in the goodness of humanity to initiate change in the world, Shark Angels' "Fin-Free" movement was launched in 2011. The global movement is an action-oriented campaign enabling individuals to make the conscious choice of becoming Fin-Free, encouraging others (such as legislators and their communities) to join the cause. Andersen cites, 50 million people are living in areas where shark finning is illegal. With each city throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia becoming Fin-Free is another victory; it may seem to be a small impact, but each victory builds.

As the Fin-Free movement begins at the grassroots level, any community can initiate a campaign. Andersen suggests, individuals interested in launching their campaign should contact Shark Angels, as the organization will act as a support system in guiding that launch. Shark Angels will provide the set of tools necessary to launch a successful campaign, by first ensuring public support for the movement through awareness, then planning activities to "get the ball rolling" before approaching legislators to sponsor a bill. As passing legislation is an arduous process, Shark Angels is vigilant in when and how the piece of legislation is to be introduced to ensure success.

Education is one of the best methods to further the Fin-Free movement, reaching people who haven't been exposed to sharks, through the media. "I would love more positive media regarding sharks" as well as the sharks' true nature (rather than sensationalistic depictions on the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week"), asserts Andersen. Getting the public at least aware, is a mammoth stepping stone to giving the sharks their voice. Andersen is currently re-editing a film for public viewing in China, solely on the subject of shark finning. The education process is multi-tiered, addressing the demand of shark fin, initiating campaigns at grassroots levels, and reaching children.

Andersen remains optimistic, with the belief that "'every single person has the power to bring about change'" giving sharks their voice, looking ahead towards the future, through future Shark Angels programs; and most importantly, cultivating the next generation of conservationists, through the Shark Cherub Program, a program for children who are "[Shark] Angel[s] in training who [are] passionately committed to sharks."

Shark and man
Shark and man

Man holding shark. |
The individual most memorable to Andersen is seven-year-old Shark Cherub Luke from Toronto. Andersen proudly recalls, Luke had never even seen a shark before, but fell in love with them after seeing "Shark Week." Luke had acquired over 1,000 signatures, all within three days, for a petition to ban the sale of shark fin in Toronto. What was most compelling was when Luke was invited to stand in front of the city council to read his letter of why it was important to ban the sale and consumption of shark fin in Toronto, "I am just one 7-year-old boy and look what I have done! Now it's your turn, imagine what you can do! Help me save the sharks, help me save the oceans, help me save my future'" To Andersen, "He is the reason so many people [in Toronto] wouldn't eat shark." Luke's letter can be read here.

Thomas is another Shark Cherub, who is the youngest Fin-Free coordinator, leading his Fin-Free campaign in Florida. One day, he had seen a fisherman preparing to kill a Hammerhead shark; Thomas pleaded with the fisherman, telling him the shark had feelings and a family, deserving to have a life, as well as sharks becoming endangered. After twenty minutes, the fisherman was convinced and set the shark free. Thomas knew he wanted to make a difference. Thomas has also written many essays on animal rights issues with the hope of educating more people, giving the sharks their much deserved voice.

Expanding efforts to reach more children, Shark Angels introduced their mascot, Charlie, a Hammerhead, who with his eight other friends, including a Whale, Tiger, Black Tip, and White shark, shift the perception of sharks for kids, by personifying them. Children can learn about the ocean, sharks, and the protection of the ocean by saving sharks, through Charlie. Shark Angels is currently training speakers for speaking engagements at local schools, with the hope of taking their message further. As the Fin-Free movement is action-oriented, it illustrates for children that they can do something to save Charlie, no matter where they are.

Despite how people may personally feel about sharks, an undeniable fact is they serve a significant role as keepers of our oceans'our planet's most important ecosystem. Andersen observes, our health is dependent on the health of the oceans, which is regulated by the sharks. Simply, we need them. Andersen's hope is for people to not only understand the sharks' vital role as keeper of our oceans, but to also understand the sharks themselves. It is also Andersen's hope we consider the health of the oceans, where we need to start respecting our oceans, rather than using them as dumpsites.

For Andersen, the best way for people to gain insight to the nature of a shark, to shed the fear originating from a stigma, is to get into the water with them, in a safe and responsible way, offering these diving guidelines.

Perhaps after people have had that personal interaction with the curious and non-threatening creature, they will be more prone to preserve the oceans and their protectors. Andersen once took a group of professional rugby players on a shark dive; they, like Andersen, felt that initial fear, clutching onto her. After a few moments, the rugby players let go of Andersen to interact with the sharks. To Andersen, it was "amazing and charming" to watch those perceptions be transformed. It all begins with an open mind.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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