Demand for delicacy threatens shark population

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The Independent Online

International demand for shark fin, a flavourless delicacy used in Chinese food, has become so huge that fisherman are illegally targeting protected wildlife reserves including the Galapagos islands, and the Cocos islands off Costa Rica, to reap profits of a size approaching those from narcotics.

International demand for shark fin, a flavourless delicacy used in Chinese food, has become so huge that fisherman are illegally targeting protected wildlife reserves including the Galapagos islands, and the Cocos islands off Costa Rica, to reap profits of a size approaching those from narcotics.

The environmental charity WildAid yesterday launched a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the slaughter of more than 100 million sharks last year and a reduction in some populations of more than 90 per cent since 1987. Those under threat include the great white, the hammerhead and the basking shark.

Fishermen who deal in fins cut them from the back of a living animal and throw the rest of the carcass back into the sea, even though shark meat is an important source of protein in many poorer countries.

The director of Ecuador's Galapagos National Park Service, Eliecer Cruz, said illegal fishing for shark fins in the Galapagos had increased dramatically in the past few years. "It's very profitable and has created a mafia here. But it is very difficult to stop and it can cause corruption in our institutions."

WildAid compares the trade to the slaughter of elephants for their ivory. No species of shark is internationally protected, and this has led to what WildAid calls a "free-for-all". Only in marine reserves such as the Galapagos do they have any legal protection.

In China only the fin is prized, despite having no flavour to speak of. It was rehabilitated as a politically correct foodstuff by the Chinese authorities in the late 1980s and, because it is expensive, is served mainly on special occasions, at weddings and to impress at business meetings.

But increasing prosperity, coupled with a lack of awareness of the dish's origin, has sent demand skyrocketing. It has also attracted the attention of unscrupulous traders, many from countries that do not consume shark fin, such as Senegal, Kenya, Somalia and Costa Rica. Victor Wu, a spokesman for WildAid, said: "A shark fin is essentially tasteless and putting it in a soup is all about texture. It has to be boiled for hours to get rid of the pungent smell, then the flavour in the soup is from the broth, which might be either chicken or abalone."

In London's China Town, where nearly every menu contains items made with shark fin, a portion of shark fin and crab meat or shark fin and shredded chicken soup can set you back £6 a bowl. These are made with dried shark fin. But soup with a fresh or frozen shark fin could cost £60 a bowl and is a delicacy in Singapore and Taiwan.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is to discuss the fin-hunting in a meeting at the end of this month. Peter Knights, the director of WildAid, said: "Solutions will come only from learning more about sharks, reducing fishing pressure, stopping unnecessary catches, monitoring shark fishing and trade, and more effective enforcement of the regulations."

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