CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — I’d been in New Zealand two days, and there’d been two shark attacks in Australian waters. The latest victim, a good-looking snorkeling guide who seemed remarkably cheerful about the whole business (“Must have great pain meds,” my hostess said), couldn’t wait for his arm to heal so he could get back in the water.
Like most of us ocean addicts, this Aussie appreciated how rare shark attacks actually are: annually, only 60 are reported worldwide. Though I steadfastly refuse to watch “Jaws” and am occasionally nervous in deep water, I confess to far greater fears of giant anacondas in mysterious freshwater pools than rogue tiger sharks over coral reefs.
Actually, my first shark encounter did more to allay my fears than any statistic. I just happened to look the right way at the right time when a six-foot reef shark cruised by. It took absolutely no interest in me whatsoever, either as food or annoyance — surprising, considering the fuss I kicked up pointing it out to my dad, who was counting polyp tentacles a few coral heads away.
Since this was the first shark we’d seen in our (combined) decades of snorkeling experience, we retell the story often, and I feel safer every time we do. But only recently have I fully appreciated what a privilege that shark sighting was — and why our encounters with them are so rare.
Sharks are in serious trouble. Whether they’ve been perceived as a direct threat to human safety (and trapped or hunted accordingly), indirectly suffered as our competitors (starved by overfishing or snarled as bycatch in our nets) or fed to us themselves, sharks have known only harm at the hands of humanity.
Worse, sharks and their surrounding ecosystems are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. First, sharks are long-lived. It takes years for them to reach reproductive maturity — years during which they’re vulnerable to pollution, habitat loss and hunting — so many sharks die without replacing themselves. Second, sharks top the food chain, helping maintain balance within their community of fish. In their absence, mid-level carnivores boom, sometimes to the detriment of humans, as is the case on the Atlantic coast where the cownose skate (whose population is normally checked by sharks) now successfully outcompetes humans for scallops.
The North Atlantic Ocean alone has lost half its shark population. Globally, 110 shark species — one in five members of a group that’s swum Earth’s waters for 400 million years — are considered vulnerable, threatened or endangered. Most of these species are down to 10 or 20 percent of their normal population size.
And each year, while sharks might claim one human life, humans kill 100 million sharks.
Some are harvested by subsistence fishermen as a critical local protein source. Though shark meat is typically of low value, there are markets for it in Australia, Iceland and parts of Asia. I even remember a shark steak or two on my plate as a child.
Nowadays, the real moneymaker is the fin. Shark fin soup — basically glorified chicken soup finished with collagenous fin fibers — was once a rare delicacy in China. As that country’s middle class continues to rise, so too does the demand for cultural status symbols like shark fin soup.
While a full-grown blue shark (the most common fin source) weighs up to 450 pounds, its fins amount to only 1 to 5 percent of that total. Since shark meat is nearly worthless compared to the $300 per pound that fins bring in, fishermen are loath to waste cargo space or fuel transporting whole sharks. And so the practice of shark finning — cutting the fins from a live shark, then releasing it to sink to its death — was born.
Regardless of its economic efficiency, shark finning is repugnant to most sensibilities and has been banned by many countries, including the United States in 2000. But these bans often go unenforced, and sharks, highly mobile creatures that they are, frequently swim out of regulated areas anyway.
Fishing restrictions over the last decade have done little more than drive the shark fin trade underground. So the latest attempts to slow down the billion-dollar industry have tackled the opposite end of the line. Conservation groups recruit celebrities — like Chinese basketball phenom Yao Ming — to publicly reject shark fin soup. New legislation focuses on criminalizing the fin market rather than controlling its source. Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Bill AB 376, which outlaws possession and sale of shark fins.
Restaurateurs have one year to serve up existing stocks, so if you ever wanted a taste of shark fin soup, I guess now’s the time to get it. I wouldn’t though — it’ll run you up to $80 a bowl. Plus, like any oceanic top predator, sharks carry high levels of bio-accumulated mercury — not the best thing for your brain mid-quarter.
If you’d like to get to know sharks on an intellectual, rather than gastronomical, level, though, you should check out the upcoming Shark Week activities on campus. Plus, knowledge is free, so unlike a shark fin, this won’t cost you an arm or a leg.
Holly welcomes comments, questions, and shark tales (but not fins!) at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.