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We are fishing and eating from our oceans unsustainably, eating down the food chain

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By Stanley Shea

The  European Parliament Fisheries Committee could in the next days quite irresponsibly kill proposed legislation to phase out the use of deep-sea bottom trawls and other destructive fishing gear in the Northeast Atlantic.

Predictably, many of the committee’s 25 members causing the most problem represent districts with deep-sea fishing interests, according to Bloom’s Claire Nouvian and an Oc. 2 New York Times Op-ed written by marine scientists Les Watling and Giles Boeuf.

According to scientists, 90 percent of the ocean is below 200 meters but not much is known about life there, expect that it is home to countless species, many of them as yet undocumented.  Research covers only about 1 percent of the vast area.

As fisheries have collapsed in shallow waters, the industry has looked to the deep for new species and have found only a few there that can be sold for human consumption or processed for fish meal. Yet trawls with gear heavy enough to reach 2,000 meters below the ocean’s surface have scooped up everything in their path, palatable or not, and thus reduced fish biomass by 80 percent over an area about the size of Britain.

According to the Op-Ed, in 2011, vessels from eight EU countries landed 15,000 metric tons of four species of marketable deep-sea fish, which represents only 0.4 percent of Europe’s fish haul. Because of the fragile and adverse conditions in  the deepest areas of our oceans, the fish are slow reproducers so this sort of fishing causes irreparable harm.

There exist many fragile species in the deep that are simply swept up or smashed by the trawl gear, which can leave the bottom or mid-areas of the ocean completely bereft of life. A declaration by 300 global scientists has urged that this type of destructive fishing be eliminated from the deep sea – now!

The deep sea battle is just part of the ocean tragedy, described well in the latest audit by an international team of marine scientists from the International Programmed on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).  Released earlier this month, the report showed that the world’s oceans and marine life face unprecedented threats from industrial pollution, global warming and rampant overfishing.

The IPSO paper calls for “urgent remedies”  because the “rate, speed, and impacts of change in the global ocean are greater, faster and more imminent than previously believed.”

The battle over deep sea trawling then is over “a small fishing area that produces a diminishing number of fish for a handful of companies , who despite massive subsidies from the EU and their own states are not profitable – all the while destroying countless organisms that represent the library of life on Earth,” according to the Op-Ed

Clearly, Trawling should be eliminated from the depths of the Northeast Atlantic. Yet  legislators, backed by industry, are staging an irresponsible fight in the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament that is against all of our interests  and the real tragedy is that they could win.


Photo by Stanley Shea

Photo by Stanley Shea

Good news is always welcome when working in a field like ours where social and environmental challenges are often seemingly intransigent. Months or even years can pass with seemingly limited progress and then, suddenly, there is a decision that changes the work entirely or shifts us into fast-forward gear.

We had just one of those moments last week when the Hong Kong government recommended that shark fin not be served at official functions. In a circular dated September 4th but only announced last Friday in a press release, the government also said its employees should not consume the soup at functions they will be attending.

The intention was for the government to “demonstrate its commitment to the promotion of green living and sustainability,” according to the press release. Also included in the recommendation was that blue fin tuna and black moss should be avoided.

A government ban on public sector consumption of shark fin has been the primary “ask” of conservation groups working in Hong Kong on reducing the consumption and thus import of shark fin.

There has also been some success there: Although Hong Kong still imports about half of all shark fin traded globally, data from the Census and Statistics Department indicates a 19.8 per cent drop in imports from 2011 to 2012. This is particularly interesting given that for the 15 years through 2011 shark fin imports remained relatively constant at about 10,000 tons a year. Of course, the question is whether this reduction is due to declining supply – fewer sharks in the oceans – or a reduction in consumption.

Stay tuned for the results of our investigations. Working with Hong Kong Shark Foundation and Bloom, we intend to survey restaurants and wedding planners to get a sense of whether consumer tastes are changing – following some years of education on the biodiversity challenges associated with the consumption of shark fin.

Estimates are that the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are traded each year and scientists warn that the rate of fishing for sharks, many of which grow slowly and reproduce late in life, is unsustainable. Sharks help maintain marine habitats such as coral reefs and ocean health by regulating the variety and abundance of species below them in the food chain, including commercially important fish species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List estimates that of the 262 shark species where there is sufficient data to assess conservation status, 54 per cent, or 142 species, are at risk of extinction either now or in the near future.

When ADMCF in 2006 first started working with conservation groups in Hong Kong to research consumption habits and the trade, educate consumers about sharks and ultimately reduce consumption, the task certainly looked daunting.  There was a sense that expensive shark fin soup, served mostly as a status symbol at official or business functions and wedding banquets, was an entrenched cultural tradition.

Still, a study of cultural attitudes toward shark fin in 2011 by Bloom and the Hong Kong University Social Sciences Research Centre showed that 88 percent of respondents believed the Hong Kong government should prohibit the sale of products that involved killing endangered species. More than 75 percent said it would be acceptable not to include shark fin in a wedding menu.

Certainly, the first achievement milestone was, after much hard work by conservation groups here to educate hotel staff, recognizing last year that more than 60 percent of four and five-star hotels had either taken shark fin soup off their menus or would serve it only upon request.

More recently, airlines, led by Cathay Pacific, have said they will no longer carry shark fin as cargo unless they can be assured the fin is from sustainable sources. This is in line with many corporate sustainability policies.

The sense here, and perhaps globally, is that the “tide is turning” in favour of sharks. We believe that change is inevitable. Our job at ADMCF is to keep the pressure turned on both government and business, keep educating consumers and move us even closer toward more sustainable use of our already depleted oceans.

Photo by Alex Hofford

Photo by Alex Hofford

We hope the next milestone achieved will be a full Hong Kong government ban on the shark fin trade here until the industry can show that the product can be harvested sustainably. We are currently a long way from real sustainable supply, with only two small certified shark fisheries producing only spiny dogfish (small fins), which are not the source of much of the soup consumed in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

Yes, this is a big ask of a government that is usually reluctant to act on any environmental issue. Still, the recent government circular, dated September 4th stated, “The government is committed to the protection of endangered species.”

It also stated: “As the government is committed to the promotion of green living, we should take the lead and set a good example that goes beyond the minimum expectation as laid down in law.”

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An unbelievable and disturbing sight photographed Jan. 2nd in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong by Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton. An estimated 18,000 fins were found drying in the beautiful early January sunshine.

About 50 percent of the global shark fin trade passes through Hong Kong, largely to feed Asian appetites for shark fin soup and other shark-related product. Estimates are that possibly as many as 73 million shark are harvested annually in a lucrative trade estimated in value from US$540 million to US$1.2 billion.

A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe, with Spain as the largest supplier, providing between 2,000 and 5,000 metric tons a year. Norway supplies 39 metric tonnes. Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers. Bags of fin labeled from Brazil were found on the Hong Kong rooftop.

As affluence has grown in Asia, particularly China, so too has demand for shark fin soup, which is eaten largely as an expensive delicacy at wedding and other banquets.

One-third of sharks species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List.

By Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd

That coveted bowl of shark fin soup, those shark cartilage capsules said to bring health benefits, might not only be bad for the oceans but also pose a risk for degenerative brain disease in humans.

A new study from University of Miami researchers shows shark fin contains high concentrations of  a neurotoxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (also Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS).

The findings, published in the journal Marine Drugs, followed the testing of seven species of shark: blacknose, blacktip, bonnethead, bull, great hammerhead, lemon, and nurse sharks for β-N-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA.  Samples were collected as fin clips from live shark in South Florida waters.

The study’s co-author, Professor Deborah Mash, director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, was part of   a 2009 study that showed patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and ALS had unusually high levels of BMAA in their brains of up to 256 ng/mg. By contrast, healthy people, the study showed, had no BMAA, or only trace quantities of the toxin in their bodies.

In this latest study, the team found high BMAA levels of between 144 and 1836 ng/mg in shark fins.

BMAA is produced by cyanobacteria, which are found  in lakes, rivers, estuaries, and marine waters where nutrient loading from agricultural and industrial runoff, sewage, groundwater inflow and atmospheric pollution accelerate bloom growth.

This is then eaten by small aquatic marine animals, which in turn are consumed by sharks, potentially posing a health risk to consumers of shark products.

The study cautioned that, “further studies are needed to confirm this finding and to demonstrate that widespread BMAA detections in sharks may occur outside of South Florida coastal waters.”

High concentrations of BMAA were, however, detected in the fins of some sharks collected in areas with no active cyanobacteria blooms. Sharks are highly migratory, making it likely that they pass in and out of areas where cyanoblooms may have occurred over time, the study says.

Consumers in Asia eat shark fin soup at wedding or official banquets and purchase shark fin cartilage powder or capsules  as dietary supplements, which claim to combat and/or prevent a variety of illnesses.

However, the study points out that, “the benefits of these supplements have not been significantly proven, nor has shark cartilage been reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Let’s hope regular consumers of shark products think carefully about their health before slurping down another bowl of shark fin soup or popping more cartilage capsules.

Catch it if You Can

sleclue —  March 25, 2010 — 3 Comments

Our oceans are in deep trouble.  A growing population with an insatiable appetite for seafood has driven exploitation of our seas to such an extent, that some scientists predict a global collapse of fish stocks by 2048, or thereabouts.

Daniel Pauly, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, likens these dire straits to Bernard Madoff’s now infamous ponzi scheme. As our oceans have been plundered and fish stocks declined dramatically we simply moved our efforts to exploit stocks elsewhere.

Pauly’s reasoning is simple:  Madoffs’ scheme required a pool of new investors to generate revenues for past buyers and when these disappeared so did the scheme.  The global fishing industry similarly requires new stocks to continue and when the supply is ultimately exhausted a collapse is inevitable.

The consequences for us all, however, are far beyond the havoc created by Madoff.

Numerous factors contribute to the crisis. Perhaps foremost among these is the combination of increasingly sophisticated technology that can locate all manner of fish and the phenomenal industrialisation of a once relatively benign practice.

As with now intensive land-based food production, the technology and the scale of fishing is almost beyond comprehension. The techniques that now imperil our ocean life range from bottom trawling, which rapes vast planes of the ocean floor, to deployment of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) and its consequent bycatch.

In Charles Clover’s relatively recent documentary ‘the end of the line’, bottom trawling is likened to ploughing a field seven times in one year. Fish, indeed the entire marine environment, simply don‘t stand a chance if we continue as we are.

Is talk of a potential collapse scaremongering? A look at statistics indicates otherwise. In a 2003 paper, Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm wrote that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems.

Part of the problem remains that fishing is heavily subsidised and global regulation is for the moment at least, not a force to be reckoned with. The dramatic decline of the majestic blue fin tuna and many shark species serve as cases in point.

The fate of the Blue Fin was sealed just a few days ago when the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) failed to ban international trade. This unfortunate species now faces extinction in the not-distant future.

Sadly, the short-term gain of a few has once again triumphed at the expense of the environment.  In the meantime, things are as bad if not worse for sharks.

Despite evidence to suggest that many shark species are critically endangered, only five species are protected under CITES. Of those, it is perhaps encouraging that two are banned from international trade, however on the down side it would seem that these are virtually extinct already.  In Hong Kong, which accounts for 52% of global shark fin imports, there is no regulation beyond CITES.

As fish stocks decline we become ever more cunning in hiding the truth as we turn to less attractive species for food.  Rock salmon served in many fish and chip shops in the UK for example is actually dog fish, a species of shark.

As Clover points out in his book, other unappealing species that are ending up on our plates are being creatively recast – black scabbard has become sabre and the increasingly endangered Orange Roughy is now known as empereur.

The problem is deeply worrying – and not just because hundreds of millions of people depend on fish for animal protein, or that fishermen the world over rely on healthy catches for their livelihoods.  Havoc is quite literally being wreaked on an essential resource on which depend for survival.

We are causing significant changes that we don’t yet fully understand to a vast ecosystem that requires balance to provide the benefits we take for granted.

As an example, there have been increasing reports of mass jellyfish swarms. One of the causes commonly cited is industrial-scale fishing.  Since fish prey on jellyfish, it shouldn’t be surprising that a consequence of overfishing is an explosion of these creatures in our seas.

What then is the answer? Aquaculture has increased dramatically in recent years but unfortunately, this practice is not the panacea we might like it to be and in fact has its own issues.

One concern is the widespread practice of raising predatory fish such as salmon as opposed to herbivorous fish such as carp.  A Worldwatch Institute report produced two years ago offers the following startling facts:

  • Farmed seafood, or aquaculture now provides 42% of the world’s seafood supply and is on target to exceed half in the next decade
  • The average per capita consumption of farmed seafood has increased nearly ten fold since 1970
  • Early fish farming raising herbivorous species on vegetable scraps and increased the overall supply of seafood
  • The growth in modern fish farms focused on large-value predatory fish fed on smaller fish is now contributing to a net drain on seafood supply
  • There is a growing scarcity of fish feed.   Today, about  37% of marine fish landings are reduced to fishmeal and fish oil
  • Four fish groups – marine shrimp, marine fish, trout and salmon consume more than half of the world’s fishmeal even though they represent just seven percent of global aquaculture and less than three percent of total seafood production
  • Twenty kgs of feed is required to produce just 1 kg of tuna (it is worthy of note that tuna farming or ranching as it appears to be known, for the most part involves catching juvenile wild tuna which are then caged and fattened with fish protein )

In summary, the Report indicates that despite ongoing improvements in feed ingredients and technologies, the rapid growth of fish farming in recent decades has effectively outweighed any gains in feeding efficiency. Modern fish farming is a net drain on the world’s seafood.

As a fish eater, it’s difficult to find sources of sustainable seafood such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified varieties and blatant mislabelling or creative naming of fish don’t help.

While there are many fish guides around, I for one find them hard to use, given the lack of knowledge of staff in restaurants and supermarkets and the need to identify for example the location of the catch.  Still I use these where I can (iphone apps have been helpful) and am increasing my awareness of locally caught ‘non-endangered‘ seafood.

In this instance, the low-hanging fruit perhaps are species such as blue fin and to a lesser extent yellow fin tuna and farmed salmon, amongst others, that are easier to recognise and so avoid.

Another approach is simply to reduce consumption of the larger long-lived fish with lower fecundity and go for the smaller short-lived species that reproduce rapidly – sardines and anchovies for example.

If chefs can be creative with these smaller species, maybe eating anchovies can become as trendy as blue fin sushi.  The UN FAO points out that consuming longer-lived species such as Orange Roughy, which can reach 200 years in age, means that fish on your dinner plate could have hatched at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte!

But on the bright side, with the Oscar for best documentary going to “the Cove”, perhaps even Hollywood finally has taken note of the plight of marine species.

Films such as “The End of the Line”, “Sharkwater” and “Food Inc.” make it easier for all of us to understand enough to consume more sustainably, ask more questions of those supplying our food and lobby our governments to act.

In the meantime, I look forward to the release of “Oceans “ on Earth day next month – a film that by all accounts promises a breathtaking view of the beauty and power of a valuable resource for which we sadly seem to have little regard.

Fins at sea

I thought that since we were in the midst of Chinese New Year this might be the time to write about shark fin soup and its growing consumption in Asia. Perhaps not understood by many, is that this has dramatic consequences for our oceans, which are already depleted by overfishing.

Over the Lunar New Year, consumption explodes of the pretty tasteless soup, which is made by simmering the fins for up to eight hours with mushrooms, fine dried ham, other seafood in a base of clear chicken stock or water.

Traditionally served at Chinese weddings and other special-occasion banquets, shark fin has surged in popularity as China has become more prosperous, with more than 800,000 metric tons of fin consumed every year. That’s triple the quantity of 50 years ago.

Chinese believe that shark fin soup, which can cost as much as US$200 a bowl, promotes health and prosperity, reflecting the status of the hosts. And whereas in years gone by, families would gather to prepare a simple meal together, for an increasingly affluent population the Lunar New Year has become a time to splurge on expensive and not necessarily tasty gourmet cuisine at restaurants and hotels.

Turtles, abalone, shark fin and birds nest are top of the list of foods families feel compelled to order for their exotic qualities and expense, rather than necessarily for their taste.

The sad reality is, however, that 20 percent of shark species are now threatened, with  an estimated 200,000 killed daily – millions every month – many for their fins alone. Some sharks, like the hammerhead and the great white, have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent in the last 15 years, while others, like the silky white tip, have disappeared from some oceans entirely.

Part of the problem, is the shocking practice of finning, which has been banned by upwards of 60 countries since 2004. Since sharks are large creatures and the meat itself is not particularly valuable, to save space on their boats, fishermen often slice the fins off the live shark on the high seas, tossing the body back into the ocean, where the shark in effect drowns.

This practice is fueled by huge demand. A “set” of dorsal and pectoral fins can fetch as much as $100 for fishermen, and then $700 a kilogram in Hong Kong’s dried seafood stores, the hub of the world’s trade.

Beyond the huge waste in a world where many are hungry and the  cruelty of finning lies the reality that these wonderful and important creatures are disappearing from our oceans yet we can’t live without them.

Sharks and their direct predecessors have been swimming in the world’s oceans for well over 300 million years – long before dinosaurs walked the Earth. The fact that sharks have survived for so long without changing very much is a real tribute to the effectiveness of their anatomy.

According to the Oceanic Research Group, recent studies have shown that sharks are quite sophisticated. Most sharks have an incredible sense of smell. These sharks can detect one drop of blood dissolved in as much as one million gallons of water. Many sharks can detect the extremely minute electrical currents generated by the muscles of swimming fish. Some sharks can sense at a great distance the tiny pressure variations generated by an injured fish struggling to swim. Contrary to popular opinion, most sharks have excellent low light vision, thanks to a mirror located behind the retina. This mirror reflects light through the retina a second time. A shark may have many rows of teeth. When an old tooth breaks or becomes too dull, a new one rotates into place. Are these the marks of an unsophisticated creature?

Perhaps also not well known, is that sharks come in incredible varieties. The largest fish in the ocean is, in fact, the whale shark, reaching about 60 feet in length. The smallest known shark is only a few inches long when fully grown. While many sharks do have conspicuous teeth, many of these animals eat only small invertebrates. Other sharks have no teeth at all, feeding by straining plankton from the water much like the balleen whales do.

Often we hear that sharks are dangerous creatures, perhaps fueled by the film Jaws.  The fact is, you are much more likely to be hit by a car or even struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark and there are on average only about four fatal shark attacks a year. In reality, sharks are no more dangerous to people than any other large predators like tigers or lions. Why do we label sharks killers, while we consider lions majestic, magnificent?

And perhaps most importantly, sharks are essential to the ocean ecosystem. Like most top predators, sharks feed on the sick and weak, thereby keeping the schools of fish healthy. Lions and tigers serve the same role in their ecosystems, removing the weaker animals from the herds, and keeping the gene pool strong.

In areas where sharks are significantly depleted, fishermen report serious declines in shellfish populations as other fish species feed on them undeterred.

Despite the threats sharks face, there is not enough action worldwide to protect these majestic creatures. Only three species of shark –  great white, basking and whale – are currently listed under Appendix II under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in their parts is regulated.

Other species – including hammerheads, oceanic whitetip, dusky and sandbar sharks – desperately need the same protection. The U.S. is currently considering submitting proposals to add additional species to the list of sharks protected by CITES.

Among other action to conserve sharks, in Europe, the Shark Alliance – a coalition of NGOs – is working with governments there on regulation. In Hong Kong, Bloom Association ( and WWF are working together to generate market, trade and cultural research that will inform a campaign targeting hotels, restaurants and consumers.

Joint and swift action is needed to protect sharks!