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The job of a marine biologist is to study and conserve the ocean, and all the creatures within it. While their main focus is the water, a lot of their work is conducted on dry land, as they fight for regional laws, fisherman bans, and strive to protect endangered species through methods like captive breeding. One species that is edging closer and closer to endangered status, are sharks, or elasmobranchii. With over 506 individual species, one might think that scientists have no reason to be concerned about the sharks in the ocean. Sharks are being brutally killed in large amounts, their fins stripped from them for shark fin soup, or traditional medicine. Some individuals claim that this practice should be allowed, due to the strong significance it has in asian countries. Despite having strong cultural importance, Shark finning is bad for the ocean’s ecosystem, the sharks themselves, and the people who exploit them. For some fishermen, and many individuals, the death of sharks is seen as trivial. After all, why be upset over the death of bloodthirsty, terrifying, apex predators? But sharks aren’t evil, they simply do not have the brain power or capacity to be capable of morality.
Existing media such as movies, TV shows, and books have led humans to believe that sharks have a grudge against humans, and will ruthlessly hunt them down at every available opportunity. When thinking of sharks in modern media, most people would immediately think of the 1975 film, “Jaws”. The film is about a killer shark, preying upon the people of a small beach-side town. Another example would be the sharks from “Finding Nemo”, that are shown to go crazy with blood lust after being exposed to a small amount of the red liquid. Diving even further, even watching factually correct documentaries about the species can negatively influence our view of them, because of something as simple as lighting or music. When a scene is backed by ominous music, the viewer interprets it as a scary, fear-inducing moment, a ploy used heavily in making horror movies. By showing sharks with sinister background music, viewers will start to subconsciously associate sharks with fear. Many fishermen who target sharks are not acting on fear. A research article from the publisher “Frontiers In Marine Science” explains why, stating, “The shark fin industry is so lucrative that it has transformed several remote coastal communities in Eastern Indonesia from predominantly subsistence-based fishing villages to cash-based economies. This departure from subsistence fishing makes it difficult for shark fishers to engage in alternative livelihoods, since there are few legal, marine-based alternatives offering similar financial profit. Two pounds of shark fin can fetch upwards of $650 US dollars, making the practice attractive to low-income fishermen struggling to make ends meet. For these men and women, that money can lift them out of abject poverty, it can allow their children to go to school, and open up access to medical care. For these men and women, shark finning is a necessary evil. Instead of resorting to maiming marine life, these fishermen need sustainable, financially-similar work alternatives, so they can improve the quality of their lives without harming sharks.
Shark fins are used in chinese medicine for a variety of unproven “cures”. The main use is for shark fin soup, which was previously considered to be a show of status; the soup was, and still is, highly expensive. Shark fins are relatively tasteless, so the soup is heavily seasoned, or cut with chicken stock, and it takes a considerable amount of cooking time to make the hard, gummy fins soft and palatable. Some less popular uses include the fins being advertised as a cancer treatment, skincare, a cure for joint pain, and an aphrodisiac. In 2012, a group of marine biologists, neuroscientists, and researchers discovered that the fins contain high amounts of a neurotoxin, BMAA. This toxin, along with the amount of mercury that shark meat typically has, exposes you to the high risk of developing degenerative brain diseases.
Consuming shark fins may be harmful for humans, but the process of finning hurts far worse for the shark. They are caught, hauled aboard the boat, and have their fins, both dorsal and pectoral, sliced off. At this point, the shark is still alive, and once the fisherman finish the de-finning, the live shark is thrown overboard immediately. The fins are far more profitable and easy to obtain, rather than taking the time and money to process the entire shark body. Most shark species breathe through a process known as ram-ventilation, which means that they must be constantly in motion for water to flow over and through their gills. Without fins, the shark cannot move itself, leaving it unable to obtain oxygen and breathe. They are left to wiggle around helplessly in an effort to stay alive, but they ultimately sink, and suffocate in a slow, painful span of time. Their death does not exclusively affect the shark. Since they’re apex predators, the ecosystem relies heavily on their presence to maintain balance. If there were no sharks, their prey would overpopulate, and deplete natural resources. On the other end of the scale, predators that are similar to sharks would also overpopulate. With no competition from sharks, the predators would overfeed..
This leads to the ecosystem being thrown completely out of cycle, and it will cause the ocean to no longer be able to effectively sustain the creatures living in it. In an effort to conserve and protect sharks, and thus the rest of marine life, scientists are implementing technology into their protective attempts. Simon Thorrold, a marine biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, uses PSAT tags to track certain sharks. PSAT tags are a small, painless device that is attached just below the dorsal fin. “So the tags give us a window into the details of how these animals are living in their ocean habitat, where they go, when, and why.”says Thorrold. The tag stays in the shark from six months to a year, before automatically detaching and floating to the ocean’s surface. Next, the tag transmits its signal to nearby satellites, where scientists can retrieve and review the data. With tags like these, scientists can get a better idea of what areas should be off-limits to fishermen looking for sharks. Humans don’t need shark fin soup, or cures that are unscientific and based on speculation and lore.
The practice of shark finning is brutal and inhumane, and while it may provide short-term benefit to struggling fisherman, it ultimately will cause more problems than we can avoid or fix. With advanced technology and better awareness of the issue, marine biologists will be able to make bigger strides to effectively conserve sharks, without having to fight against individuals with cultural bias, or individuals hooked on tradition. It is saddening to see these animals continue to be ruthlessly exploited. While humans may not require sharks to survive, our oceans do.
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