Decimating Shark Population for Some Soup

ByABC News
October 30, 2006, 2:04 PM

Oct. 30, 2006— -- The practice is particularly crude and cruel, critics say. The "finners" pull the sharks onto the boat, hack off some or all of their four fins, then throw the shark, usually still alive, back into the water. Unable to swim, the sharks sink to the bottom of the sea and die.

"Not only is it horrible to look at," says Peter Knights, the executive director of Wildaid, a conservation group, "but it's sheer waste. Ninety-five percent of the shark is thrown overboard."

Shark meat is considered inferior to other kinds of commercially fished species, such as tuna or swordfish, experts say. While it would be difficult for fishermen to store entire shark carcasses, the fins take up little space. They can be dried and kept for months.

The fins are sold primarily to China for shark fin soup, considered a delicacy and a symbol of affluence. According to a report by the group Wildaid, shark fins are now among the most expensive seafood products in the world, selling for $700 per kilogram on the Hong Kong market.

Demand for shark fins has increased with China's economic growth, the report says. Shark fin soup was originally served as part of formal banquets by the Ming dynasty. But with the creation of a new middle class in China with disposable income, what was once rare is now common at weddings and corporate banquets.

Knights says it's "new money with old ideas -- a bad combination." Wildaid and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association conducted a survey in China early this year and found that 35 percent of those interviewed said they had consumed shark fin soup in the last year. That adds up to a consumer base of more than 100 million people. But Wildaid says few are aware of the shark-finning process or the effect on the shark population.

Conservationists estimate some shark populations have declined as much as 80 percent or more in the last 50 years. While there may be a variety of reasons for that decline, they say the shark fin market is only making the situation worse.