by Edward Dorson

The world's sharks are quickly vanishing and it's primarily driven by demand for shark fins as the main ingredient in a status symbol soup devoured throughout Asia at weddings and banquets. Estimates averaging 100 million sharks are slaughtered annually, mostly to supply the fin trade. Some shark species are nearly functionally extinct, their populations having declined by as much as 98% since the early 1970's.

Sharks targeted by finners aren't taken whole; their valuable fins (up to $800 a kilo) are sliced off and the mutilated shark is tossed back into the sea to slowly die. That's not only despicably inhumane, it wastes over 90% of the shark that could go towards food and non-consumptive utilization. The obliteration of over 400 million years of evolution for some perceived social status with serving shark fin soup isn't just idiotic and cruel – it's tragic.

A healthy ocean depends on sharks. Scientific studies show that many shark species are apex predators vital to regulate species abundance and distribution necessary to maintain an intricate marine ecosystem full of life-giving diversity. The removal of sharks is causing devastating impacts with negative effects to the food chain, seagrass beds and coral reefs.

Here's but one example of a "cascade" event that demonstrates how the elimination of sharks ruins both ecosystems and economies:

• Eleven of the large shark species along the eastern US coast are now nearly gone. Without the sharks performing their ecological role as the predators of rays and skates, their prey species have increased to ten times the normal number.
• This, in turn, allowed the more abundant rays and skates to consume more bay scallops
• Once the bay scallops were depleted, the rays and skates expanded their range to devour clams and oysters, which are also rapidly disappearing.
• Aside from being a food source for the rays and skates, scallops, clams and oysters also strain out phytoplankton which serves as a filtration system to help maintain water quality. Without enough of these bivalves, this natural filtration system breaks down.
• Consequently, coastal areas suffer more toxic Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and subsequent dead zones. The affected waters have toxins which are poisonous to fish, aquatic invertebrates, birds, marine mammals and people.
• The HABs halt the fishing and shellfish industry and disrupts the tourist trade, which devastates the coastal economy.

Given the enormous scale of direct carnage and the collateral damage to the ocean, what's needed can't be found on a national level. Many shark species migrate throughout the seas – some thousands of miles – they don't belong as any one nation's resource.

A total ban on the barbaric practice of finning sharks, a decades-long global moratorium on commercial fishing of endangered or threatened shark species, more vigilance in mitigating shark bycatch (with gillnets, purse seines, longlines, etc.), and a ban on all recreational shark fishing is now essential. Demand for shark fin soup must be lessened through education along with legislation to ban the trade in shark fins altogether. As for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of sharks, only draconian measures upon both poachers and the syndicates that drive their plunder can make regulation meaningful.

The ecological, economic and ethical consequences of an ocean without sharks must be voiced with a resonating collective alarm – beyond research papers and manifestos that the public doesn't even know exist. Creative alternative media, powerful documentaries, and more inventive activism can sound a global alarm of the havoc that's resulting from this ongoing massacre. Such exposure can compel passage of strict international regulation for shark preservation.

Grotesque greed and indifference must be denied for the sake of sharks and for aquatic ecosystems that need their critical participation. The outcome of further inaction will soon create a vast jellyfish soup, formally known as the ocean. All thinking and caring people must now reach their tipping point that says enough to the annihilation of the world's sharks.

© Edward Dorson 2009