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Watch What You Eat: Endangered Sharks Show Up in Soup

Eight shark species found in shark fin soup samples from restaurants in 14 US cities

As if there wasn’t enough to worry about when trying to make sustainable choices about seafood, endangered species of sharks are now turning up in shark fin soup.

shark fin soup Photo by Flickr user Plasticchef1Many states and nations, including the US, are making strides to restrict and regulate the shark fin
trade, but where there’s a demand, there will come a supply.

Eight separate species of shark, most of which are on endangered and threatened species lists, were found in soup samples in 14 US cities. The study, conducted by the Pew Environmental Group, Stony Brook University, NY, and the Field Museum, analyzed the shark meat in 51 bowls sent in by shark attack survivors.

Shark fin soup, considered a delicacy by many, comes at a high price: upwards $100 a bowl, and 73 million shark deaths a year. Many states and nations are making strides to restrict and regulate the shark fin trade (as EIJ reported here and here), but where there’s a demand, there will come a supply. Six countries have declared themselves shark sanctuaries, yet those same countries import and consume shark fin from other areas that have no such restrictions.

“Shark fin soup in the United States is not necessarily made of sharks caught in the United States,” said Dr. Demian Chapman, assistant director of science at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. “In all probability, it was imported.”

Indeed, people ordering shark fin soup in Atlanta, Chicago, or San Francisco have no way of knowing what species of shark is swimming around their soup bowl. The “threatened” smooth hammerhead was found in Los Angeles, the “vulnerable” shortfin mako in Albuquerque, the “endangered” scalloped hammerhead in Boston. Spiny dogfish, school, blue, copper, and bull shark meat were also found in soups bought in Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Las Vegas, New York, Orlando, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

“You can’t tell which shark you’re going to get when you order it at a restaurant,” said Liz Karan, manager of the Global Shark Conservation campaign at the Pew Environment Group. “Consumers have nobody telling them that.” The best way to avoid eating endangered species meat, she argues, is not to order shark fin soup.

Making that small gastronomic decision could have a real impact on shark populations. The fin is by far the most valuable part of a shark, with 80 countries taking part in its global trade. Demand for shark fins have led to a 70 percent decrease of hammerhead in the north Pacific. The whitetip shark population went down 99 percent over a 40-year period from the 1950s to the late 1990s. As with any sharp change in population, the loss of sharks has an impact on the entire ocean ecosystem. “It’s bad for sharks, but also the environment,” Karan said.

This is exactly what rallied the small group of shark attack survivors who made this study possible. Under the guidance of Debbie Salamone of the Pew Trust, survivors ordered shark fin soup from restaurants in 14 US cities and sent their samples to Chapman at Stony Brook University. Chapman sampled the meaty fin cartilage, which had been dried, bleached, and heavily damaged prior to cooking, and extracted sequences of DNA barcoding. He sent those codes to Kevin Feldheim at the Field Museum, where Feldheim was able to match the samples’ DNA strands with specific shark species. Feldheim said he was “really pleasantly surprised” with how the entire process worked.

As part of its popular Shark Week programming, the Discovery Channel will broadcast a show documenting the study. The show, titled “Shark Fight,” will air on Wednesday, August 15 at 9 p.m.

Nicky Ouellet
After teaching English for three years in Russia and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Nicky now writes for the Earth Island Journal.

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