by Cate Faehrmann, Chair of Sea Shepherd Australia
Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is a global phenomenon. What started as a week-long series of educational documentaries in 1988, soon after Discovery Channel was launched, now screens in 72 countries and is the longest running cable TV event in history.
A search on Twitter for #SharkWeek reveals large numbers of #savesharks posts by organisations across the world campaigning to protect them. A search for #Sharkweek Specials however show restaurants taking Shark Week in an entirely different direction. Dishes like Mako Tacos at the Wild Goose Tavern in California and Blackened Mako Shark with Mango Salsa at the Boston Beanery in Morgantown are being proudly promoted. To be left in no doubt it’s the real thing, Boston Beanery’s tweet proclaims “it’s actual SHARK! It’s delicious!”
Some have blamed Discovery Channel for not making Shark Week enough about the plight of sharks, whose numbers have plummeted by up to 90 percent globally. However, the increase in demand for shark meat this week can’t be that unexpected considering the reluctance of many governments around the world to give the survival of this, and many other marine species, the attention I’d argue they deserve.
The shortfin mako shark, unfortunately a favourite on forks in many restaurants, is listed as a “vulnerable” species on the IUCN’s ‘red list’ at risk of extinction. So too is the Tiger and the Pygmy Three-toed Sloth. Imagine tiger tacos being served up during Threatened Species Week. Perhaps they would be though any promotion would be sure to say “It’s NOT actual TIGER!”
While ever the mindset continues that the ocean is one giant feedlot simply there to provide us with an endless supply of protein, many species of fish, including shark, will be pushed to the brink of extinction and beyond. It’s telling that fish markets and supermarkets continue to sell endangered and threatened fish to unwitting consumers who switched to free-range eggs and chicken years ago. And that many of the growing number of restaurants that only buy free-range pork and organic chicken still don’t think twice about serving up bluefin tuna or orange roughy (often marketed as deep-sea perch), both threatened species, on their menus.
Shark populations are in free-fall. It’s estimated anywhere up to 273 million sharks are killed each year globally, mainly for their fins. Sharks grow slowly and reproduce later in life, meaning they are particularly susceptible to over-exploitation. Experts predict that the current rates of shark fishing will have ramifications for many years to come as they are being fished at rates that will be very difficult them to recover from.
If the public outcry to the Western Australian Government’s shark cull is anything to go by we are a nation that loves our sharks. Yet while Australia has banned the practice of ‘shark finning’, where the fin is sliced off the shark when it is still alive and its body dumped at sea, we still contribute to the supply and demand of shark fins in our region.
Certain fisheries in Australia directly target shark. In 2012, then Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke granted the East Coast In-Shore Fin Fish Fishery a 3-year extension allowing it to catch a total of 600 tonnes, or about 78,000 sharks, each year. Most of these will be caught in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and many will be exported.
Data released to the Australian Marine Conservation Society under Freedom of Information laws show that for the 2011-12 financial year show, Australia exported at least 178 tonnes of shark fin to Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, which equates to about 13,300 tonnes of whole shark.
As for how much we are importing it is impossible to tell due to poor data collection. However a walk through any Chinatown in our major cities will give you a sense of how much shark fin is bought and consumed here too.
However there is heartening news out of China of plummeting demand for shark fin as awareness rises within the middle-class and even the Chinese government sets a three-year timeframe to ban serving shark fin soup at its official functions.
Scenes by Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart in his disturbingly powerful documentary Sharkwater show rooftop after rooftop in Costa Rica being used to dry shark fins alongside warehouses stacked to the ceiling with them. The film shows just how lucrative the global shark fin trade is and how difficult it is to stop.
Yet we must. Sharks play an absolutely vital role in the overall health of our oceans. Remove top predators from any ecosystem and things get out of balance very quickly. Food chains are altered and entire species disappear.
Australia needs to lead by example and stop contributing to the supply and demand of shark fin in the region. It’s time we treated shark products, including shark fin, as we do ivory or powdered rhinoceros horn.
This means rapidly phasing out fisheries that target sharks, ceasing shark fin exports and placing a national pan on their importation. Consultation with affected communities and compensation to businesses directly impacted would be standard.
To see that sharks can be so revered and celebrated on the one hand, yet so willfully eaten on the other in countries like the United States and Australia shows how far there is to go.
Acceptance that we have a problem needs to happen fast.
Yesterday I made a comment on the Wild Goose Tavern’s mako taco Facebook post alerting them to the listing of the Shortfin Mako Shark on the IUCN’s red list of species. It was deleted overnight.
Cate Faehrmann is Chair of Sea Shepherd Australia and a former NSW Greens MP. She has had opinion pieces published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sunday Telegraph. She is a regular panelist on ABC’s The Drum.