HAZARD – Approximately 100 million sharks of all species are harvested from the oceans each year, many for their fins. The sharks are hauled aboard a fishing vessel, their fins sliced off and while still alive the fish is dumped back into the ocean where it either suffocates or is eaten alive by other animals.
The fins, and no other part of the shark, are then used for an Asian delicacy called shark fin soup.
Several organizations like Sea Shepherd and Oceana are advocating for policies against the practice known as shark finning, and two California residents who recently passed through Perry County have also joined in the cause with their own effort, called “Spinning to End Finning.”
“I always sort of knew about shark fin soup, and that sharks were being caught for their fins, but I didn’t know the extent of it until a couple years ago,” said Mark DiMaggio, a 56-year-old science teacher from Central Coast, who along with his former student named Devon Lambert is completing the last stage of a cross-country trip atop bicycles. The two are using their trek to help raise awareness about shark finning, and what they say is an unsustainable and cruel practice.
Though over 400 species are known to exist, sharks are the most endangered animal in the ocean, DiMaggio said, adding those who harvest sharks do so indiscriminately and with no regard for the impact the practice has on individual species.
“At this point, the population of sharks around the world, some of them are depleted 99 percent of some species,” he said. “Others are less severe, but the averages are between 90 and 95 percent, which means there are a tenth as many sharks in the ocean as there were 20 years ago.”
Declining shark populations can cause havoc in the world’s oceanic ecosystems, added Lambert, a current student at University of California, Davis. Since sharks represent the ocean’s apex predators, once their numbers decline then populations of prey fish which feed on oxygen-producing phytoplankton increase. Phytoplankton produce half of the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis, so when plankton populations decline it will eventually have a noticeable effect elsewhere in the world.
“If the last shark was pulled out of the ocean next week, it’s not like you’d know it immediately, but over time the whole system that makes the oceans function would really be thrown in chaos and the ocean ecosystem could collapse,” DiMaggio added.
While Lambert and DiMaggio are using their ride from Louisville to Washington, D.C. to bring awareness to this issue, they also hope others will take that message and begin advocating for solutions. Five states — California, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, and Hawaii — already ban the purchase or possession of shark fins and similar products, and DiMaggio said he’d like to see other states follow suit.
“What we’re hoping is people will learn about it first,” he said. “That’s our main thing is to raise awareness and that their understanding of what is going on will lead to some activism.”
Shark fins are mostly in demand in Asian countries like China and Taiwan, and the issue has been exacerbated in the past 20 years as more people in developing countries are able to afford shark fin soup, which DiMaggio notes exists more as a status symbol in those countries.
A good amount of the harvesting, however, is being done near areas like Costa Rica, where organizations have been established to advocate against the practice of finning. DiMaggio suggested that people can donate to these types of organizations, but perhaps as important is to write to state and federal lawmakers here in America and suggest a ban on the trade and possession of shark fins (The practice of finning is already illegal in U.S. waters.) and send a message to other countries that this is being taken seriously.
“It’s extremely cruel to do this to an animal,” he said. “It’s very wasteful, it’s unsustainable. It’s just wrong, and it needs to stop. It’s something that has kind of spun out of control.”
To learn more about shark finning, and about DiMaggio’s and Lambert’s ride to the East Coast, you can visit their website at www.endfinning.com. A donate tab has also been set up on the site, where anyone who wishes can donate to one of the Costa Rica non-profits called Pretoma.