Striking a Balance

Sharks: a Battle Between Culture and Conservation
by Anna Flam -- September 30th, 2013

Few species incite as many passionate, and contradictory, emotions as sharks. I learned to sail on the former Jaws location. Outer harbor capsize drills had us all scrambling to right the boats with extra fervor. We never knew what might be nipping at our toes. (Back then there weren’t too many sharks around Cape Cod. Recent increases in seal populations have brought great whites back into the area, though.) Shark-induced nervous exhilaration  was intoxicating. As much as I wanted to keep all my limbs I longed to see a shark in the wild.

Sharks are fascinating, feared, and endangered. Over the last 30 years of intensive fishing — with shark catches over 100 million per year — many shark populations have declined by more than 90%. Shark finning is the largest driver of this overfishing. More and more research shows shark decline as disastrous for food webs and coral reefs.

If you think this Seven Gill Shark looks scary ...

If you think this Seven Gill Shark looks scary …

... then just check out the ferocious Sea Lion that chased it away moments later.

… then just check out the ferocious Sea Lion that chased it away moments later.

Green groups campaigning for restricting shark fin transport have already reduced Hong Kong’s shark fin imports by 50% . Western advocacy groups are now accused of “never think[ing] about the livelihood of these poor [fishermen]” and an anti-Chinese conspiracy.

First off, most fishermen on these boats are not benefiting from the lucrative shark fin trade. Many fishermen are little more than slave labor.

Shame on you Siam Paragon.

Shame on you Siam Paragon.

Accusations of an anti-Chinese conspiracy needs to be addressed, though. When is it okay to criticize another culture’s ingrained beliefs? Can we really say our culture is right or better? However, the true cultural import of shark fin soup is questionable.

Since shark fin soup’s main purpose is to demonstrate prosperity, WildAid started an advertising campaign with Chinese celebrities including Yao Ming, Ang Lee, and Jackie Chan. Ads work to convince Chinese people that shark fin soup should not be considered a delicacy, and that French wine is a more prestigious substitute.

Considering the prominent Chinese icons endorsing French wine over shark fin soup, it would seem that shark fin soup is not such a universal Chinese cultural imperative.

I believe in cultural rights. Simply saying “your view is wrong” will never win allies in conservation battles. However, sometimes culture needs to evolve. I don’t think that anyone has the right to exterminate a species. Culture should not be used as a wall to defend the  income of the wealthy, especially when more money can be made with live sharks.

I want to keep seeing these guys in the wild.

I want to keep seeing these guys in the wild.

Lastly, if you’re so scared of sharks you still think the world would be better off without them check out this list of things more likely to kill you than sharks, like vending machines.

Getting into the water with sharks can also dispel fear. My first dive with sharks was down at 30 meters with a 3 meter bull shark. I knew the dive site was a hot spot for bull sharks; that was a big reason I was diving there! Despite my desire to see a shark, my heart was pounding and adrenaline racing when my instructor pointed out the stocky fish. I froze, hypnotized. The shark swam about for a few heartbeats, as soon as he spotted the divers a few flicks of his tail sped him away from the dangerous and terrifying bubble-blowing beasts.

If you can’t imagine getting wet with a shark, check out the beautiful and enthralling documentary Sharkwater, and you might change your mind.


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