When I arrived at the Inuit hunting camp to observe a subsistence narwhal hunt not far from Qaanaaq, Greenland, the northernmost municipality on Earth, there were no narwhals to be seen. But sitting on the beach decomposing were two Greenland sharks. The hunters told me that the sharks had been scavenging the narwhals that the hunters had harpooned before they were able to haul the whales to shore. So they killed the sharks.
As disturbing as it was to see, even more disturbing is the practice of “finning” sharks – capturing them, slicing off their dorsal fins, and tossing the rest of the carcass into the water to die – and selling the fins to Asian markets for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China where it is consumed at weddings and other celebrations. It’s not practiced in the Arctic, but it takes place in all of the other oceans of the world.
Fishermen can sell the fins for more than $40 dollars per pound, with some large fins from basking sharks going for as much as $50,000. (A market in California was selling the fins for up to $699 per pound this year.) Finning, banned in U.S. waters, is responsible for the death of tens of millions of sharks every year, which is causing great declines in shark numbers around the globe. And when the numbers of top predators decline drastically, it has a cascading affect on the entire ecosystem.
Thankfully, public outcry about finning is beginning to show results. Hawaii became the first state in the nation to ban the import and sale of shark fins this year, and Washington state soon followed suit. This week a bill to ban shark fin soup in California, introduced by a Chinese-American legislator, passed the Assembly and is headed to the Senate. Similar bills have been introduced in other states, including Oregon, where it has passed the House, though final passage is uncertain.
Whit Sheard of the marine conservation group Oceana said that winning a ban in West Coast states is part of a campaign to build international support for protecting the sharks killed each year for soup. “It’s fantastic that in times like we are in now, something like this can get such enormous bipartisan support,” he told the Associated Press.
But the battle is far from won. Even if it is banned across the U.S., the practice of finning sharks is still legal in most of the world’s oceans, and high demand for shark fin soup is keeping prices high, which provides an economic incentive for fisherman to continue the practice. However, high profile Asian chefs, celebrities, and even basketball star Yao Ming have come out in opposition to shark fin soup, so momentum is building.
Sharks reproduce slowly so it will take a long time to rebuild their populations, but these first steps look promising. And while sharks are responsible for the deaths of many marine mammals every year, including narwhals, they play a vital role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem.