sliced off: The value of shark fins has nearly obliterated the ocean's top predator off the west African coast. —Photo: AFP

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Sharks' future in peril

By Kimberly Castillo       

SHARK fin soup is a common fixture on the menus of all, if not the majority of Chinese restaurants in Trinidad and Tobago, from the well established take-away or dine-in eateries, to the hole-in-the wall joints. Just one bowl of shark fin soup seems pretty harmless but marine conservationists the world over argue that it represents the collapse of shark populations. A bowl of shark fin soup will cost you between $30 - $55 , but the price which our oceans and marine ecosystems pay is incalculable. To satisfy the demand for this exotic Chinese appetiser an average of 75 million sharks a year are mutilated in a process known as "finning".            

Shark fins are far more commercially valuable than shark meat. Fins can rake in as much as $US300 a pound, shark fins also take up less space on board a vessel when compared to heavy shark carcasses which weigh hundreds of pounds. For this reason, when sharks are caught by one of the many thousands of hooks on longlines and hauled up on deck, their fins are sliced off while the shark is still alive, then the rest of the shark is thrown back into the ocean. Without its fins to help navigate, steer and lift, the shark dies a slow and agonising death from starvation or drowning. It can take up to a week for a shark to die. Finning is so inhumane and wasteful that the practice should be banned immediately, said Gary Aboud of the non-governmental organisation Fishermen and Friends of the Sea.

For those among us who associate finning solely with Asian countries, think again. Trinidad and Tobago ranks 19th among 87 countries for largest exports of shark fins to Hong Kong, according to a March 2010 report by marine conservation organisation Oceana, titled 'The International Trade of Shark Fins: endangering shark populations worldwide.' Back in 2008, this country exported 103,104 kgs of shark fins to Hong Kong - the world's largest single market for this product. Ironically, four years earlier in November 2004, at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), T&T was one of the co-sponsors of a shark proposal to ban the practice of shark finning, yet to this day, Trinidad and Tobago has no policy on shark finning. Up to 50 Asian longline vessels operate in our waters said Aboud. Among their spoils? Shark fins, which are then hung out to dry.

This country's links with finning goes back many years. In 1999, a report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources titled Sharks: overview of the fisheries in T&T stated that the sharks which were caught in our waters were primarily incidental catch or 'by-catch' of the artisinal fishery and industrial longline fishery. But the report also suggested that finning was done at sea. It stated that shark fins represented 19 per cent of landings in 1993, while 23 tonnes of shark fins were recorded in 1992. The document went on to conclude that there had been unsubstantiated reports of large quantities of shark fins landed with very few carcasses. The report noted there was no management regime for shark in T&T and warned that the shark stocks were vulnerable to unrestrained exploitation.

That grim assessment was

made more than a decade ago, today, unregulated shark fishing has led to a decline in the number of sharks in the waters off T&T. In March of this year, visting New Zealand marine conservationist and head of the Earthrace Conservation Organisation Pete Bethune said there was no longer a stable supply of shark in our waters and blamed the scores of Taiwanese fishing vessels operating in local waters for this country's depleted fisheries. With no scientific data collection mechanisms in place, it is difficult to estimate how many sharks still roam our waters. When famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau visited these islands in the 1950's, he estimated that our waters teemed with 35 species of shark, today, just a small fraction of species remain in our waters, said Aboud.

"If a man catches a shark in Maracas Bay today, he is a hero, but 25 years ago fishermen caught up to 5 - 6 sharks a day," he said. These ancient species are especially vulnerable to exploitation- they take many years to grow to maturity and have very low reproductive rates. For this reason, their populations are slow to recover once overfished, he explained.

Our marine ecosystem is a delicate web of life which is dependent upon apex predators such as sharks to maintain its careful balance. With less and less sharks in our oceans, they will be a proliferation of other species that will do more harm than good.

In the race to save the world's sharks, some countries have banned the practice of shark finning, these include Chile, Palau, the Maldives, Honduras and the Bahamas. Restaurants in Hawaii have been banned from serving shark fins. And as recently as October, Toronto councillors voted overwhelmingly to ban the possesion, sale and consumption of shark fin soups and other products within the city limits, effective September 1, 2012.

It's going to take more than rhetoric to protect the hammerhead, mako and migratory blacktip shark that roam our tropical waters, what is needed is immediate action, said Aboud. Unless major advances are made to stamp out the practice of finning in our waters and deal with issues such as overharvesting and unsustainable fishing methods, then, said Aboud, the survival of our waters' top predators - the shark, will continue to be at risk.

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