New Internationalist

Dying for a soup

Issue 446

Growing prosperity has triggered a surging demand for shark-fin soup in Asia, spelling trouble for one of the world’s top predators. Claire C reports from Mozambique.

Aaron Gekoski
Aaron Gekoski

The shark thrashes as it is dragged on to the beach or boat. Its fins are hacked off with a machete – the fishers don’t care if it’s dead or alive.’ So says Carlos Macuacua, shark conservationist and Mozambique’s first native dive instructor, as he describes the process of shark finning.

Shark-fin soup is considered a delicacy in China and other parts of East Asia, and with the sharp increase in prosperity in the region it is now being consumed in vast quantities. In Hong Kong, the world’s shark fin trading centre, a bowl of shark fin soup can sell for over $100. Unsurprisingly, shark finning is huge business, worth an estimated $500 million a year. Thanks in part to this appetite for shark fins, an estimated 73 million sharks are slaughtered every year, with 110 species now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s ‘Red List’ and facing extinction.

Tofo Beach, which boasts an eight-kilometre stretch of white sand, lies in southern Mozambique’s Inhambane province. Eco-tourists flock to the area for some of the best diving in the world, hoping to swim with rays, whales and – the ultimate in dive sights – sharks. The country is a world centre for shark bio-diversity, with around 122 species found in its waters. In 2010, some 40,000 divers visited; many coastal communities are dependent on tourism for income.

Until recently, divers were guaranteed sharks on a dive, but not any more: ‘We used to see around 10 sharks on every dive, but now we’re lucky to see any,’ says Carlos. ‘Our shark population is decreasing.’ Indeed it is: there has been a staggering 92-per-cent reduction in shark numbers in the country’s waters in recent years.

Over the past 10 years, the coastline has become a haven for illegal shark fishing. The larger offshore boats, usually from the European Union, fish primarily for tuna, but also catch a lot of sharks.

However, two-thirds of the Mozambican population lives along the country’s coastline and fishing is for them an economic necessity. Traditionally, fishing communities catch mackerel and tuna, but overfishing by EU vessels has depleted natural stocks. Simon Pierce, Executive Director of Eyes on the Horizon, a Mozambican marine conservation organization, says that as a result, locals are now being targeted by Chinese fin buyers: ‘Chinese buyers are franchising fishing vessels, and paying people salaries and supplying shark fishing gear to target sharks.’ All unlicensed, illegal and unmonitored. ‘Shark fins are of higher value than normal finned fish, so it’s worthwhile for the fisherfolk,’ says Pierce. Fins from a single shark can fetch up to $120, which to locals represents several months’ income.

With two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line and traditional fishing resources depleted, it is no surprise that shark finning is running rampant. There are now more than 100 shark fishing camps in Mozambique, catching over 150,000 sharks a year.

Poison

Offshore vessels tend to discard the live shark after it has been de-finned, throwing it back into the sea to die a slow and torturous death. However, in Mozambique the shark meat is kept, sold and eaten by local communities. This is of serious concern since shark meat contains high doses of methyl mercury, one of the biologically most active and dangerous poisons for humans. Mozambican fishing communities who consume a large quantity of shark meat are unknowingly poisoning themselves. ‘Sharks at the top end of the marine food chain are the final deposits for the poisons of the sea,’ says Dr Andreas Keppeler, President of Sharkproject. ‘When shark is eaten, methyl mercury is assimilated into the body and reaches the brain undiluted.’ Methyl mercury affects the central nervous system and can cause developmental and neurological disorders. The poison is especially harmful to children and pregnant women – both the EU and US have issued warnings to women of child-bearing age not to eat shark meat. Each year in the US more than 60,000 children are born with damage caused by methyl mercury.

... an estimated 73 million sharks are slaughtered every year, with 110 species now facing extinction

In 2010, a team of British filmmakers followed Carlos Macuacua as they investigated the shark-fin trade in Mozambique. The resulting film, Shiver, unearthed some shocking information: ‘We’d heard reports that some of the shark fishers in remote communities were eating a lot of shark,’ says filmmaker Aaron Gekoski. With two deaths already attributed to mercury poisoning, the film crew tested samples of shark meat: ‘All had high levels of methyl mercury and one contained 2,000 per cent of the recommended daily dose.’

Collective efforts

In response, the team started to teach local communities about shark conservation and the importance of avoiding shark meat. Shiver was shown to locals and Carlos set up the Bitonga Divers Community Outreach programme: ‘I go to villages and talk to the Chief and people about the dangers of eating shark meat, the importance of sustainable fishing, tourism itself and why we have to protect sharks. People don’t understand why they shouldn’t eat them or why we need to protect them.’ Eyes on the Horizon also encourages locals to dive – an activity in which Mozambicans rarely take part. ‘My time will end one day but I want this work to continue. I’m teaching Mozambicans to earn income through diving and tourism rather than shark fishing,’ Carlos continues.

The collective efforts of shark conservationists in Tofo Beach have made a real difference: the community doesn’t catch sharks or eat shark meat any more, realizing the importance of the predators both to the oceans and to the local economy.

The fight, however, is far from over. Fuzhou Hongdong Far-east Fishery Co, one of the largest shark-fishing companies in China, plans to send 70 more boats to Mozambique this year.

Mozambique doesn’t have laws to protect sharks or the resources to monitor fishing adequately,’ Carlos explains. ‘It needs to be controlled by the government. Otherwise, Mozambicans will continue to poison themselves and, tragically, we will lose this beautiful creature from our oceans.’

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