Acne puts sharks on spot

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ONE of the great mysteries of fishing is why the trout has spots. This week I discovered the answer.

Sounds like one of Kipling's Just So stories, doesn't it? How the Trout Got his Spots. The answer is simple. It's because when he was young he didn't eat enough shark liver.

Our story starts in Japan. A scientist studying fishermen noticed that handling sharks was having a beneficial effect on their skin. It wasn't quite giving them the epidermis of a baby (can you imagine how that would have gone down in the waterfront bars?) but the shark men were certainly far less prone to dermatitis and other skin diseases.

Further tests isolated the chemical involved, which came from shark liver. Australian scientists refined the chemical and discovered that by making its home in the sebaceous glands it stopped production of the gunge that results in spots and acne.

A synthetic version, lsolutrol, forms the basis of a lotion called Ketsugo, which recently went on sale in the UK to help acne sufferers. By all accounts it's pretty effective, and is said to be the first non-prescription product to treat the cause of acne rather than the symptoms.

Ketsugo would seem to be the perfect answer for every teenager who has suffered from volcanic skin. But there are a couple of drawbacks. First, you have to keep using it or the spots return. And secondly, it's not doing a lot for sharks.

It's true that the product is no longer made from shark liver oil. But the discovery of such benefits has meant that sharks have become flavour of the month in the world's research laboratories. Well, I guess you can understand it. You never see sharks suffering from tail rot, cataracts or a runny nose. Ergo, they know something we don't. Let's cut 'em up and find out what.

Sharks are under attack from many other areas, most notoriously the Chinese appetite for their fins. Demand shows no sign of declining, though of course fins aren't what they used to be. Off the Cornish coast, the French are now taking as many blue sharks as boats can catch. Anglers, who return sharks (or ought to) are noticing there aren't as many around. Elsewhere in the world too, shark appears ever more frequently on menus.

The great white shark has no natural enemies, but the star of Jaws is under threat from professional fishermen who capture it purely for its teeth. Rich Americans and Japanese, it's said, will pay up to $10,000 for a prime set of gnashers. The rest of the fish is not even sold for food, just dumped. The problem has become so acute that South Africa has now banned all great white shark fishing, including rod and line. Angling is easy to monitor but it's far harder to catch a netsman who's targeting great whites.

The only good news for the fish is that off Australia you can now go into a metal cage and share the sea with a great white. lt sounds like the aquatic equivalent of bungee jumping, but it's proving hugely popular and it may even be the shark's salvation, just as whale-watching trips have probably done far more to bring about conservation measures than any International Whaling Commission meeting.

The wider problem, of course, is that sharks in general are mean, evil- looking and inspire a greater fear than anything else. An Australian survey, testing people's reactions to certain words, found that "shark" drew a far greater emotional response than words like snake, death, murder, rape, spider or snake.

Notice an irony here? The ones who are likely to fight hardest to protect sharks from the ravages of scientists and trawlers are those teenagers who would probably benefit most from the shark's innards.

Next week: How the dorsal fin of a haddock can get rid of your haemorrhoids.