Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
A shark without a dorsal fin is like … well, a dead shark. Sharks whose fins have been lopped off simply don’t survive, and yet fishermen relentlessly perform these brutal amputations in order to feed the voracious market for shark-fin soup. Costa Rican marine biologist-turned-activist Randall Arauz recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work campaigning against finning, as it’s called, which has reduced shark populations worldwide by 90 percent over the last 50 years.
Reporter Erica Gies at SF Public Press asked Arauz what this means:
Q: As a biologist, can you explain what losing 90 percent or more of sharks in an area does to the ecosystem?
A: There’s a very important principle in ecology: biodiversity fosters biodiversity. So if we have many species of sharks, that means we’re going to have many species of animals that they prey upon. Logic would tell us that if we wipe out the sharks, hey, nothing’s going to eat the fish, and fish populations will increase. But it’s totally the contrary. If we wipe out the sharks and reduce their diversity, everything is going to be less diverse, and it will create a major change in the structure of the ecosystem’s functioning.
Recently, on the East Coast of the United States, the sharks were wiped out. And as a consequence, scallop fisheries, which are hundreds of years old, have collapsed. And people wonder, well, what’s the relationship between sharks and scallops? And the thing is, sharks on the East Coast of the United States feed on rays. And rays feed on scallops. So when you wipe out the sharks, nothing eats the rays, so the rays have a population explosion, and they end up eating all the scallops. And people, who lived for many centuries harvesting scallops in a sustainable fashion, all of a sudden have no more fishery because the sharks were wiped out.
Who eats shark-fin soup? Traditionally, notes SF Public Press, it’s been wealthy Chinese diners, but the taste for it has spread to the Chinese middle class and expatriate communities. Shark fin is also used in some vitamin supplements and makeup.
A video about Arauz’s work held a key position at the Goldman prize ceremony in San Francisco on April 19. On the Costa Rican Conservation Network’s blog, correspondent Andy Bymer reports, “Because of the sensitive nature of shark finning and the powerful images depicted in the video, organizers decided to end the ceremony with this environmental exclamation point.” Here it is: