Sharks Slaughtered to the Brink of Extinction

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Sharks Slaughtered to the Brink of Extinction

From LasVegasNow.com, I-Team Investigation

Ocean wildlife experts like those with the famed Sea Shepherds organization see sharks differently from those of us who still get goose bumps from the theme to Jaws. New research shows that sharks are social, playful, have problem solving skills and are nothing like the ravenous monsters of the movies.

Sharks have lived in the oceans for 400 million years and since they are at the top of the food chain, they have shaped the evolution of pretty much everything else that lives in the sea.

It means that anything that puts sharks at risk could have profound effects on the ecosystem of the oceans.

Right now, sharks are in trouble and it's mostly because of soup.

Try to find someone who will defend shark finning. You can't. Neither the stores that sell the fins nor the restaurants that serve the soup. Shark fin soup is considered a status symbol in Asian cultures, but when the I-Team asked the local Asian Chamber of Commerce where it stands on sales of shark fin, the spokesperson said she was unaware of any controversy about shark finning.

It's illegal to import shark fins into this country, but in Las Vegas, it's easy to find this harvest of shame.

“Once you have spent time in the water with sharks, it's a whole new ball game. They are inquisitive. They have their own unique personalities. They are incredible,” said Kim McCoy with Sea Shepherds.

Ocean wildlife experts like those with the famed Sea Shepherds organization see sharks differently from those of us who still get goose bumps from the theme to Jaws. New research shows that sharks are social, playful, have problem solving skills and are nothing like the ravenous monsters of the movies.

But sharks will never be mistaken for big-eyed baby seals or even friendly dolphins, so there's been no public outrage about what surely constitutes a worldwide slaughter -- about 100 million sharks a year are killed by humans. Shark populations have declined by 70 to 90-percent worldwide, depending on the species. Eighteen shark species are listed as endangered and most of them are dying for one thing -- soup. More specifically, soup made from shark fins.

“The shark fins themselves don't have any taste. They tend to take on the taste of whatever they are cooked with,” said McCoy. “I don't understand why people would do it, but that is very much ingrained in certain cultures that it is a status symbol.”

The booming Chinese economy has been bad news for sharks. It means shark fin soup is now affordable for the middle class. It's served at weddings and special occasions to impress clients or relatives.

Eighty-percent of the shark fin trade goes through Hong Kong, but the fins are harvested all over the world. It's easy to go online and find suppliers in countries of Africa, Asia and Europe.

“A lot of people don't have sympathy for sharks, but they have their place in the ocean ecosystems. What we are doing to them is unconscionable. Killing 100 million sharks worldwide,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

Pacelle says the techniques of the slaughter are the unkindest cut of all. Sharks are hauled onto boats, their fins are cut off with knives or saws and then the still-living shark is dumped back into the ocean, unable to swim. They sink to the bottom and bleed to death.

While Pacelle would still object to the practice if the whole shark was used for food, he finds the practice incredibly wasteful. “It seems particularly wasteful and horrible and gruesome and inhumane to capture a shark, cut off the fin, a small portion of the total weight, and throw the rest of the animal away when we absolutely don't have to do this. It has no nutritional value. It has nothing to do with a staple of the diet of any culture in the world. It is just a wasteful, cruel exercise,” he said.

Unfortunately, as shark populations decline, the price of shark fin goes up, prompting more fishermen to harvest fins for the not-so-black market. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to import shark fins by themselves -- they have to be attached to the whole shark. But the law is widely ignored.

In the Chinatown section of Las Vegas Chung Chou City is seemingly a clearinghouse for shark fins. Bag after bag lined the shelves, ranging in price from $158 a pound to more than $400 per pound. The inventory of this one store represents the loss of thousands of sharks.

At the Ginseng Market, animal activist Linda Faso found more of the same. “He turned around, pulled it off the shelf, laid it on the counter. I said, ‘Where did it come from?’ He said, ‘Hong Kong.’ It was $69 for this dried shark fin and it feeds up to 10 people,” she said.

For those on a budget, you can buy cans of the soup for $6 at Asian markets. It's commonly found in Asian restaurants and buffets. Sea Harbour at Caesars Palace describes the soup as a delicacy. It's also been offered at the Wynn Buffet. Mandalay Bay removed the soup from its menus as a condition for setting up its Shark Reef attraction. The Venetian also barred its sale, but so many off-Strip eateries serve it. Joyful House offers five different shark fin soups. Orchids Garden and Harbor Palace both feature it as a specialty.

“It's nothing hidden about it. There is no shame involved at all. It's just something that has got to stop,” said Faso.

While shark fins have no nutritional value and no taste, they do pack a lot of mercury. So men who eat a lot of the soup can become sterile. Call it Jaws -- the Revenge.

The only way this is going to change is for consumers to express themselves as they did with dolphin-safe tuna. Know what you're eating and how it is obtained.

The is also a bill stalled in Congress. It's called the Shark Preservation Act, but with so many larger priorities, it's just sitting there. It will take an activist public to get it moving.

In January, the Sea Shepherds plan to launch an international media campaign called Operation Shark Friendly, so maybe that will get people riled up.