True or False? Common Myths about Shark Fins.
Every summer, I, along with tens of millions of other Americans, wait in eager anticipation of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week – a week-long program dedicated to all things sharks that has been airing since 1987. What is now the longest-running cable TV series and also an utter pop-culture obsession began on the back of a cocktail napkin, when three Discovery Channel executives and their colleagues thought of the idea while hanging out at a bar after work.
Stephen Colbert declares Shark Week the second holiest holiday.
Ever since Jaws inflicted a collective fear of sharks upon the public, shark conservationists have strongly supported Shark Week, which was produced specifically to raise awareness and to debunk some very common myths about sharks. This year, unfortunately, Shark Week premiered on August 4th with Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives, which has led 70 percent of its viewers to falsely believe that the long-extinct megalodon still exists. Those who know me can all attest to my love for Shark Week and the Discovery Channel. But even I have to agree with the others and wag my finger: there are plenty of awesomely weird and genuine shark facts for the audience to indulge in without having to resort to fiction.
The reality is that there are still many people who are not aware of the importance that sharks have on balancing the marine ecosystem, the dangerous decline of the shark population, or the practice of finning. Each year, between 26-73 million sharks are slaughtered for their fins. Yet, some people of my own culture continue to remain adamant about serving shark fin soup during banquets and weddings. In fact, California’s ban on shark fins met stiff opposition from certain sectors of the Chinese-American community, arguing that a ban is an attack on Chinese culture. Is this the case? Let’s examine this, along with other shark-fin myths, below.
Banning shark fin soup is an attack on Chinese culture.
Although shark fin soup dates back hundreds of years in China, it is a delicacy that has only been available to the wealthy and is by no means a representation of Chinese culture as a whole. Because shark fin soup has traditionally been a luxury item, the rising middle class will order it for their guests simply to prove that they can (a concept of “saving face.”) To dissociate shark fin soup and saving face will require more time, but the good news is that many Asian countries are beginning to realize the seriousness in the decline of shark populations as a result of finning. China has already banned shark fin soup at government banquets, highlighting the country's new attitude toward curbing extravagance. Meanwhile, major Asian airlines and hotels have banned shark fin cargos and shark fin soup from their menus. So to say that a ban on shark fins is an attack on Chinese culture is simply not true, especially when China has issued regulations against it themselves.
Shark-fin bans hurt small businesses.
While some Chinese restaurants claim that a ban would hurt their business, shark fin soup is most often served in banquets or weddings at big Chinese restaurants. In fact, many smaller restaurants would rather have the ban in order to level the playing field so that they don’t feel obligated to carry the expensive ingredient. Additionally, businesses that profit on unsustainably sourced goods will need to look for alternative sources of revenue eventually.
Shark-fins contain high nutritional value.
Researchers at the Ocean University of China found that not only do shark-fins lack nutritional value, but they could actually be dangerous to human health. Large fish, such as sharks that are at the top of the food chain, accumulate the mercury consumed from smaller fish. A sampling of shark fins sold at a Thai market showed that 70 percent contained high concentrations of mercury, some of which were 42 times over the acceptable level for human consumption. Pregnant women are particularly advised to avoid shark meat consumption as mercury could have harmful neurological effects on fetuses.
Sharks have no direct benefits to humans.
Sharks have evolved to move through water with high-efficiency and speed, and with an ability to auto-clean parasites from their bodies. Scientists are using the same concept to develop surfaces for medical devices in healthcare environments to reduce bacteria and infections, while boat manufactures are developing coatings to reduce drag and limit the use of harsh chemicals needed to clean a ship’s hull of adhering organisms.
As apex predators, sharks also play a critical role in balancing the marine food chain. For example, declines in shark populations could devastate other fish populations and eventually lead to the loss of healthy coral reefs, which is the essential breeding ground for various marine species. As shark populations decline, carnivorous fish populations grow and consume more herbivorous fish, which graze on algae. Without herbivorous fish, algae would dominate reefs and hurt marine biodiversity while also jeopardizing over $100-millions-worth of coral reef fisheries (in the U.S. alone).
Well, having seen this 2-minute recap of Sharknado, I’m not so sure what to believe anymore.
Although Shark Week 2013 has concluded, we can all take Tracy Morgan’s advice and “live every week like it’s Shark Week.” So, let’s continue the buzz around the magnificent creature and help others get excited too!
Thank you to Craig Spencer for contributing some excellent myths and to Wei Xin for researching and co-authoring the blog.
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