Hunted Hunters

Filmmaker spotlights the brutal practice of shark finning.

March 2008

By Allan Richter

It’s not difficult to find shark fins. Search the Internet, and dozens of sources of the dried and salted Asian delicacy in numerous countries turn up. The fins ultimately land on the tables of status-seeking consumers who are willing to shell out $300 a bowl, standard fare at Asian weddings and high-end parties.

But that robust demand is helping decimate the world’s shark populations, conservationists say, and can potentially wreak havoc with the ocean’s ecosystems. In the past 30 years, populations of the great sharks—those over four feet long—have dropped more than 93%, says conservationist and underwater cameraman Rob Stewart, citing a study by Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Cinematic Evidence

Stewart, 28, has documented the shark fin trade in his debut feature Sharkwater, a film gorgeous for capturing the sleek, majestic sharks and other sea life against their deep blue backdrop. But it is also brutal as it bares shark carcasses spread along miles of fishing line. Most disturbing are its images of finning, in which fishermen pull sharks from the water, slice their fins off and toss the animals back, still alive. Unable to swim, the sharks die of suffocation caused by an inability to pull oxygen-bearing water over their gills (the equivalent of lungs).

The planet’s oldest large animal, sharks are top predators that are suddenly finding themselves prey, giving shark conservation a unique urgency, says Toronto-bred Stewart. “When you start reducing their populations, they don’t rebound,” Stewart says. Unlike salmon, for instance, which have thousands of eggs, most sharks bear only a few live young. “If you remove an important animal like sharks, which have shaped the ecosystem for so long, you’re going to have a lot more problems and ripples though the ecosystem.”

Though those problems are difficult to predict, Stewart says intrusions into the ocean environments of other marine animals shed some light on the risks. After Northwest sea otter populations were ravaged in the fur trade, for example, populations of their sea urchin prey exploded. That, in turn, wiped out the kelp they ate and removed a breeding ground for Pacific herring, a staple of sharks, sea lions and other large animals.

“It caused a huge ecosystem ripple,” Stewart says, “and the sea otter is 7 million years old as a species. Now we’re removing sharks from every single ocean on the planet, and the sharks have been sharing the ecosystems for 400 million years. You can imagine the repercussions would be much greater.”

Weak Protection

About 20 countries plus the Euro­pean Union have banned finning in their waters, Stewart says, though most countries don’t enforce the ban because they have too few staff and are up against organized crime, a big player in the shark fin trade. In the US, Stewart notes, it is illegal to fin sharks, but it is not illegal to import shark fins as long as they are brought into the country on a shipping boat, not a fishing vessel.

Sharkwater chronicles Stewart’s joining with the Sea Shepherd Conser­vation Society, an activist group, as they patrol the waters of Central America and around the Galapagos Islands to fend off shark fishing. Off Costa Rica, whose government Stewart says invited the activists to help the country’s authorities combat the illegal fishing, the Sea Shepherd group rams a fishing boat and is later arrested for attempted murder. On land, Stewart uncovers a finning operation whose enormity is apparent by rows and rows of shark fins drying on warehouse roofs. Stewart and his crew are later chased by gun-toting guards. Later, Stewart develops a life-threatening staph infection that subsides after a week on intravenous antibiotics.

The movie also aims to debunk the myth that sharks do not get cancer and other diseases, a mantra some in the finning trade recite to justify the practice. “Sharks have been on the planet for longer than anything else, and because of that they are going to be pretty healthily evolved,” Stewart says. “They are pretty resilient, and they do get sick less than people do and get cancer less than people do.”

Shark research is not complete. Cathy Walsh, PhD, manager of the marine immunology program at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, says her group’s studies with immune cells from Bonnet head sharks over the past two years has given the lab reason to continue research into the cells’ potential tumor-fighting qualities. “Right now we’re working with a mixture of proteins that are secreted by the immune cells. Our biggest challenge is trying to purify them and isolate them,” Walsh says. “Instead of treating the cells with 1 milligram of compound, for example, you have a single protein and you can treat the cells with a nanogram instead of a milligram.”

The scope of the finning problem is apparent in New York’s Chinatown. At one grocery visited by Energy Times, six large canisters, each capable of holding several gallons, contained dried shark fins ranging from eight to sixteen inches, at $198 to $338 a pound. As if to underscore their purported health benefits, the jars were just below a shelf of ginseng extract.

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