It’s a strange thing that a regional appetite for soup on the other side of the world brings me and the SEA collaborative (Shark Ecosystem Assessment or SEAC) to the Bahamas to research some of the fiercest sharks in the ocean.
Sharks sit atop the ocean’s food chain and play critical roles in regulating balanced ocean environments. Similar to a wolf in Alaska preying on sick or weak caribou to keep the herd strong, sharks manage fish populations with marked precision. However, even these apex predators are vulnerable to human activities and are in peril throughout most of the world’s oceans.
Tens of millions of sharks are caught annually. This is largely a result of increasing demand for shark fin soup, a popular luxury dish in Asia that can fetch upwards of $100 per bowl. Whilst growing economic prosperity in China has led to increased demand for the dish once known as the ‘Emperor’s dish’, many species, including the oceanic whitetip, have become critically endangered.
So why shark fins?
People are after thin collagen-like strips in the fin called ceratotrichia, similar in consistency to a fingernail. These strips look like folds in an accordion. Once dried and processed, they produce thin clear noodles that do not actually add any flavor to the soup, simply texture.
Each shark is harvested for just four fins: one on the top (the dorsal), 2 on the sides (paired pectoral), and the lower fork of their tail (lower caudal lobe). The lower tail is the most expensive because it has the most ceratotrichia versus cartilage content. Although it varies on the size and species of shark, each fin makes enough noodles for a cup or two of soup.
Think about the amount of sharks killed to serve each guest a bowl of soup at just one wedding!
One of the most important and rewarding parts of the Bahamian shark tagging expedition is not just our work with sharks (although it is pretty exciting), it’s working with the local people. The team takes every opportunity to educate people as to what we are doing and why it is important – whether it be 4th graders on Nassau or fishermen on Cat Island.
Each year the team visits local schools and radio stations to get the word out about shark conservation and educate Bahamian’s about this amazing resource they have: the Shark Sanctuary. This year Mark Bond went to 4 different schools and worked with over 300 kids! They kids loved it. Mark spent the day talking with them, answering their questions, and get them excited about sharks and the ocean. He also gave an hour long interview on a local radio station.
When I spoke with Mark, he was beaming about his experience, “It was very rewarding, the kids were awesome.” He explained to the kids why sharks are so cool and their importance in the ecosystem. He told them about the wide range of sharks out there – from the huge whale shark to the small cookie cutter shark. The Bahamas is one of the few places in the world where there is such a large variety of sharks in relatively healthy numbers. “People should be very proud of that and do what they can to protect them,” exclaimed Mark.
During the school visits, there was this one 7-year old boy who must have asked about 15 questions. He was so excited about sharks and wanted to know as much as he could: What type of mangroves do lemon sharks live in? How far away do baby lemon sharks swim? How long do they live in the mangroves? Mark used this as a lesson in conservation: kids need to protect mangroves because coastal development is destroying these important habitats.
Mark stressed the amazing marine resources Bahamians have, and why they should be proud (especially since shark tourism brings in about 80 million dollars each year to the Bahamas!). Many of the shark species that are threatened or endangered around the world are flourishing in the Bahamas. This simple fact demonstrates the effectiveness of the Shark Sanctuary and provides sound scientific support for the development of similar protected areas in other countries. “We can actually come study shark populations here, instead of having to focus on recovery efforts (like in many other parts of the world),” said Mark.
A local newspaper wrote a story about the project and outreach efforts: