By Harald Gay
But what happened to his fins? For some time now, the reality of everyday fishing life has no
longer had anything to do with prose or the good old days of Christian sea voyages with their
related fishing activities. This fact was made painfully clear to me and my friends as we recently
walked through Chinatown in San Francisco.
... If we continue on this basis, sharks will soon disappear from the oceans! As already published
in earlier issues of Shark Info and other publications, sharks, and especially their fins, have
become the target of a special fishing branch. The trade with shark fins is flourishing since the
demand from major importing countries, such as China and Taiwan, is great and still shows a
tendency to increase.
Shark fins for sale in Chinatown, San Francisco.
© Harald Gay / Hai-Stiftung
For the fishing industry which is plagued by dwindling catch results and their crews, who are
poorly paid, shark catches represent a welcome enhancement to their poor income (about 30
dollars per pound). Entire sharks, often caught as a byproduct with other catches, are usually of
no particular worth to fishermen since shark meat is not considered a valuable gourmet product
and does not yield high prices at auctions. Only the fins which - depending on the species -
represent a mere 8 to 14% of a shark's body weight, yield good money on the markets! The fins
are simply cut off the shark and dried under the open sky. Particularly atrocious is the common
practice of not even killing the sharks before cutting off all their valuable fins (pectoral, dorsal and
sometimes even tail fins). The mutilated, still living animals are then thrown back into the ocean to
suffer an extremely painful death.
This smile disappeared really fast as the Chinese sellers became aware that we were trying to
document the extent of the trade in shark fins and shark cartilage through photos and film. More
than once we were forced to leave a store hastily to avoid bodily threats.
"No, no, for your taste you need only the best quality", I heard an adept dealer argue. He was
talking to an elderly women holding a dried shark fin in her hands. The woman's companion
looked at the fin with some degree of awe and was impressed. The fact that prices for shark
fins have exploded and that the fin in the woman's hands cost around 250 dollars did not seem to
deter the modestly dressed woman and her companion. Prompted by other sales people to leave
the store, we were unable to determine if the dealer's efforts were finally crowned with
In the Far East shark fins are sold as an aphrodisiac, a term applied to drugs or foods - for
example, certain seasonings, alcohol or hormones - which are said to enhance sexual drive and
male potency. The effectiveness of many symbolic and mystical substances seems to be based
more on the belief in love potions and traditions rather than on certified fact. Just like tiger bones
and testicles, shark fin soup is traditionally defined as being an effective substance to enhance
male potency, especially in the far eastern culture. It surely cannot have anything to do with taste
since shark fins are bland and are usually cooked for hours in a chicken broth with herbs and
spices to make them palatable. We can only surmise how many sharks have to die for the
dubious pleasure of such a shark fin soup.
In the People's Republic of China, shark fin soup was actually shunned, being considered
capitalistic and decadent and therefore not in line with party politics. However, changes in the
political system, the economic boom in special economic zones and western influences, etc.,
revived the taste for decadent things which rapidly regained acceptance.
Shark cartilage products sold in Chinatown, San Francisco.
© Harald Gay / Shark Foundation
Although the large number of shark fins available in many stores far exceeded our expectations,
they were by far not the only items up for sale. Many types of different shark cartilage products
were also available in all stores and shark meat was sold at open fish markets. Fish merchants
offered apportioned leopard shark meat (Triakis semifasciata), the same species daily admired
by hundreds of children and adults in the nearby Steinhardt Aquarium.
Summarizing, we made the following observations in all of the stores visited: Shark fins were
never offered at a price below 100 dollars per pound. The average price was around 180 to 200
dollars. The highest prices we found were around 335 dollars per pound, and 250 dollars for a
single fin. In addition, a whole palette of cartilage products was available in all stores in the form
of pills, lozenges and fluid concoctions. Most packages contained 50 to 100 pills and were priced
at about 12 to 18 dollars. What really surprised us is the fact that these products were not
manufactured, as expected, in Asia or South America, but right outside of San Francisco.
Why should it be different in the fishing industry? In official statistics, sharks are only listed as a
coincidental catch, often without species identification, which is why most countries today still
lack legal quotas to protect shark populations. Only a few countries have programs to register
species and populations in order to obtain more accurate information on sharks in their waters.
Many species migrate through thousand of miles of seawater, which makes it easy to
understand why information about shark populations can only be made available on a long-term
basis. On the other hand, the probability that suitable measures may be implemented too late is
Upon concluding our tour we were really shocked by what we learned and saw, and realized
how much more needs to be done to guarantee the survival of the shark species into the next
millennium. The ocean has turned into a self-service store for mankind, in which - at least in the
past - the shelves were automatically refilled. However, for some decades now, humans have
been taking more and more from the shelves without any concern for how the shelves were
refilled. By now it should be clear to our civilization that limited resources should not be
exhausted for reasons of superstition, for products of dubious effectiveness and simply due to
rampant greed. Only a meaningful and moderate exploitation of the ocean will guarantee the long-
term survival of both humans and sharks.
* Harald Gay has been studying sharks for many years and is an enthusiastic diver. He is a member
of the German Elasmobranch Society and active in shark protection.
May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Harald Gay