By Susan ScottMonday, November 8, 1999
SHARK finning has been in the news lately as people argue over whether government agencies should regulate it and how. Several issues stand out in shark finning. One is the violence of the practice.
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When a blue shark gets caught on a longline hook, fishermen pull the fish from the water, cut its fins off, and then heave it back to the ocean. Unfortunately, during this process, some sharks are still alive.
This is brutal. But then, fishing in general is brutal. Commercial fishermen hook, drown, gaff, stab, club and suffocate millions of fish each year. For sport, anglers stick spears into fish, drag them for hours from hooks stuck in their throats and haul them aboard boats by the gills.
"Oh, it fought hard," people boast after "playing" a fish to death.
Those who fin sharks don't do it for fun and don't care if it's humane. It's business, pure and simple, and violent, like most kinds of fishing.
THEN there's the question of whether the practice of finning is threatening the survival of the blue shark species. Some biologists worry that this is true, but no one knows yet because data has been sketchy. But catching blue sharks by the thousands is not new. For years, longline vessels fishing for billfish and tuna have accidentally caught large numbers of blues. In the past, these fish were thrown back with fins intact, sometimes alive, sometimes dead.
Now, they're thrown back finless and sure to die. The toll of this practice is hard to gauge and remains to be seen. The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently studying the blue shark stock. Reports are due this spring.
The third issue in shark finning is its wastefulness. There's no difference of opinion about this -- everyone agrees that it's a shame to throw a dead or dying 6-foot-long fish back to the water.
The reasons for discarding sharks from commercial fishing vessels, however, are practical ones. Because shark meat contains urea, which converts to ammonia after death, shark carcasses in a fish hold would quickly contaminate other fish there. Therefore, to bring sharks to market, fishing boats would have to build separate spaces to transport sharks.
And if longliners did make such changes to their boats, which would be expensive, they would then need to be sure there was a market for them.
THE good news is that several local entrepreneurs are currently researching the possibilities of blue-shark markets. One Hawaii physician is requesting permission from the Food and Drug Administration to conduct clinical trials on cancer patients using medicine made from shark liver extract.
Other possibilities for blue sharks, being investigated by a Hawaii-based businessman, are using the skin for tanned hide, the teeth and jaws for arts and crafts, other body parts for medicines and animal feed, and the flesh for human consumption.
If these markets prove economically feasible, and blue sharks continue to thrive, longliners would have good reason to modify their boats and bring in the whole shark. Since the fish would be processed aboard, workers could kill them before removing their fins. In addition, a steady market of whole shark would allow fisheries to track landings for conservation purposes.
Yes, shark finning is appalling. But just as appalling is its wastefulness. Hopefully, new shark markets will put an end to this waste and, in the process, ease the fisheries' management and public relations problems.
Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.