4 Lame Excuses for Shark Finning and Why it Must End

The act of shark finning flies directly in the face of sustainable living. We need to outgrow this practice and embrace a positive relationship with sharks.

This is the latest installment in Casson Trenor's monthly column, 4 Oceans, about protecting our fisheries and ocean health through sustainable seafood.

A powerful conservation movement is afoot in the United States. Shark finning -- the practice of catching sharks, slicing their fins off, and then dumping the animals overboard (often still alive and slowly bleeding to death) -- is being exposed for the monstrosity it is. Globally, we slaughter tens of millions of sharks each year. And for the most part, we do it for the fins, which can fetch hundreds of dollars a pound.

This is insanity. We need sharks in our oceans. Without sharks and other top-level carnivores to keep populations of sub-predators in check, we run the risk of losing productive and well-balanced marine ecosystems to trophic collapse. Thankfully, some communities are finally saying no to shark finning. Hawaii banned the possession and sale of shark fins in 2010. Washington State signed a similar prohibition into law on May 12 of this year, and in California, a ban on trafficking in shark fins is working its way through the legislature.

It's difficult to overestimate the importance of such a law passing in California. More shark fins are sold and consumed in the Golden State than in any of the other 49. If we can manage to protect these unique animals under California state law, we may not be far from a nationwide moratorium on this staggeringly unsustainable practice.

Here are several common arguments being used to defend this practice, followed by my thoughts on why they're unsound.

1: Shark fin consumption is a cultural practice and tradition.

Some cultures have a history of consuming shark fin. I am not in any place to pass judgment on these cultures, and I don't want to. All I want to say is that culture is not the unchanging monolith that some make it out to be.

Culture is a dynamic representation of both the history and the current state of a particular group, be it based around attitudes, ideals, goals, shared experiences, or other connective forces. A culture is not a static thing -- it changes with the times. Over the centuries, many cultural practices have ended in favor of the evolving wisdom and consciousness of the human race. For example, while I may not be part of a culture that has historically practiced shark finning, I am a member of a culture that has historically practiced slavery.

I am a Caucasian American and a direct descendant of slave-owning ancestors who believed in the inferiority of human beings with a darker skin color than their own. I even have relatives who died while shooting at the Union army to protect this cultural practice (among other things, of course). Slavery was a common practice in North America for centuries. It was part of our culture. It was also wrong. And, thankfully, it ended.

Human beings evolve. Our cultures evolve. As we learn more about our planet and ourselves, we gain the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. We now know far too much about humanity's dependence on Earth's environment to keep slaughtering sharks for their fins. The tragedy of shark finning is more than just sharks dying for shortsighted profit -- it's that today, when we have learned so much about sharks and their irreplaceable roles in our oceans, we continue to mindlessly slaughter them in the name of "culture."

2: Shark fin is good for your health.

Some schools of Eastern medicine equate shark fin consumption with heightened energy and virility. I am certainly no nutritionist, and will not attempt to dispute this belief. That said, it's a proven fact that a typical bowl of shark fin soup is in actuality quite devoid of most vitamins when compared to, say, a similar serving of vegetable soup. Shark fin does have some nutritional value -- especially some key elements like iron and zinc -- but it's nothing one couldn't get from any number of other foods. To kill a shark for such a meager nutritional reward is a terrible bargain for the planet at large.

3: Sharks are dangerous! They eat people!

Certain works of art, literature and film have such a profound impact on society that they literally shape our culture. Jaws was one of those films. It terrified an entire generation and set shark conservation efforts back 20 years.

Jaws was also one of the most inaccurate and unfair films ever made when it comes to portraying actual shark behavior. The film that made us all afraid to go back in the water had virtually zero basis in reality, yet it engendered a phobia of sharks that has afflicted us for decades. The problem is so acute, in fact, that Peter Benchley, the creator of Jaws, had a massive crisis of conscience and dedicated much of his later life to ocean conservation and shark protection efforts.

Globally, shark encounters with humans account for about 10 deaths a year, give or take a handful. By contrast, lightning strikes kill over 20,000 people each year. Dog bites, pig attacks, and even fugu blowfish (due to improper preparation) cause more human fatalities annually than sharks. Sharks are not the mindless killing machines that we once feared they were. The contribution sharks make to a healthy ocean vastly outweighs their danger to the human race.

4: We can fin sharks in a sustainable manner.

Really? Can we? I personally doubt that very much. We understand very little about most species of sharks, and it is extremely difficult to properly manage a fishery when we lack such key information as growth rate, migration patterns, and reproductive behavior.

That, however, is not even the main issue. Sustainability goes beyond choosing which species are acceptable to consume and which aren't. One of the core issues here is respect for the animal -- which, in this case, is manifest in how we are using it for our own purposes. How can we have a sustainable fishery that involves cutting off the fins of a living creature and dumping the rest? This kind of waste and disrespect has no place in a modern food system that is based on ecosystem awareness and sound resource management. To look at this in simple economic terms: If a given shark weighs, say, 150 pounds, the fins might be 10 pounds of that. So to cut off the fins and dump the rest is equivalent to a retention rate of 1:14 -- one pound of catch, 14 pounds of waste.

The very act of shark finning flies directly in the face of sustainable living. We need to outgrow this practice and embrace a positive relationship with sharks. For those of you residing in California, please contact your state representative as soon as possible and urge her/him to support AB 376. An ocean without sharks just won't work.

Casson Trenor is senior markets campaigner with Greenpeace USA, where he spearheads efforts to hold restaurants and supermarkets accountable for their seafood sustainability practices and to help educate the public about the global fisheries crisis. He is the author of Sustainable Sushi.