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Fin market threatens sharks

Part in great demand for use in expensive Chinese soup

The growing demand for shark fins to use in a Chinese delicacy has sharks' populations in danger.
The growing demand for shark fins to use in a Chinese delicacy has sharks' populations in danger.  

By Gary Strieker

(CNN) -- The Whale Shark is the world's largest fish -- not an aggressive monster, but a gentle, slow-moving plankton-feeder that can reach more than 40 feet in length and weigh over 15 tons.

But the giant creature is easily caught by fishermen who supply the market for shark fins, used to make an expensive Chinese soup.

A large fin from a Whale Shark can now sell for more than $10,000 in China, and conservationists say the growing trade in shark fins has become a serious threat not only to Whale Sharks, but also to other shark species almost everywhere.

The major cause of the skyrocketing demand for shark fins is rising affluence throughout Asia, according to Peter Knights, director of WildAid, a conservation organization based in San Francisco.

In particular, he says, "it's because of the growth of the middle class in mainland China, where eating shark fin soup is a very conspicuous way of showing increased affluence."

'Trash fish' to target

In the past, most species of sharks were considered "trash fish," without enough value to be targeted by fishermen.

"What's happened now," Knights says, "is that shark fin has become so valuable that it actually becomes worth fishermen targeting directly for sharks, so certainly shark fin demand has been a major factor in the decline of shark populations globally."

Scientists point out that because sharks are top predators, they play a crucial role in the health of ocean ecosystems. New research indicates that serious reductions in shark numbers could have disastrous effects on populations of important food species like tuna and sardines.

For that reason, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has called on all countries to adopt action plans for shark conservation, but so far only a handful of countries have done that.

Conservationists are now campaigning to ban the cruel practice of finning, where fishermen cut the fins from live sharks and then throw the creatures back into the ocean to die.

Recently, Spain became the first European country to outlaw finning. Spanish exports of shark fins to Hong Kong are nearly 1,000 tons a year, in a global trade estimated at 7,000 tons and counting.

The European Commission is now considering a ban on finning within its members' fishing zones and on boats flying European flags. Experts say this would be a major advance in shark protection, but it would not affect the demand for shark fin in Asia. They say that without effective international regulation, overfishing of sharks could cause a worldwide collapse in their populations, and possibly the extinction of many species like the Whale Shark.




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