By Barry Kent MacKay | Director & Wildlife Specialist, Animal Alliance of Canada
Jaws: A Misrepresentation of Sharks and the Consequences
June 20, 1975, was a bad day for sharks, with some species drifting into the inexorable abyss of annihilation. It was on that day that Jaws, the Steven Spielberg movie based on Peter Benchley’s novel, hit the big screen. Filmed at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the story featured an offshore killer, an impossibly cognitive great white shark terrifying all who entered the ocean to the accompaniment of John Williams’ Oscar-winning, unforgettably suspenseful soundtrack...dum dum…dum dum…dum dum…dum dum dum dum…dumdumdumdum… If you are too young to recall seeing the movie that year, you will never understand how menacing bass strings in conjunction with a triangular fin breaking the sea’s surface could be. I, knowing how shark-free the waters were, got nervous in a small sailing boat out in Lake Ontario, a few days after seeing the movie. Unfortunately, the film led to shark panic triggering the other side of the fear coin – hatred – viciously aimed against sharks everywhere. A regretful Benchley later devoted himself to shark conservation. So did a lot of people like us, the animal protection movement, not yet appreciating still other, greater threats against sharks building all around us.
Consumption of Shark Fins
Subsequent shark slaughtering worldwide was not just retaliation against a mechanical shark pretending to eat movie extras in Jaws, although the movie’s hugely negative impact against sharks was the downfall of many of the apex predators. The greater threat derived from a tradition dating back over 1,000 years, to China’s Song Dynasty, when the tasteless texture of a shark’s fin became a favored base for soups and stews. That was long ago and the lack of our present level of fish-killing machinery made acquisition of shark fins difficult and inefficient, thereby contributing to cost of effort, passed on to the value of the product, all leading to the product’s prestige. Shark fin soup became a status symbol of significant value, being unto seafood what the Mercedes-AMG One is to cars, and like the Mercedes, rare, the number served at very special events then involving few sharks and few species, which, pre refrigeration, were caught in a relatively small region.
With contemporary technology came vastly increased shark killing worldwide, including their relatives, the rays, both in a class of animals called the Chondrichthyes [pronounced kaan·DRIK·thees], characterized by skeletons made of cartilage. All other fishes are known as the Osteichthyes [aa·stee·IK·thee·ees], aka the bony fishes.
To most folks a shark is pretty well any big, streamlined, and toothy, scaleless fish, with that triangular dorsal fin, and their numbers are in decline worldwide. Slow to mature sexually and producing relatively few young when they do, sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Large fish generally are in massive decline as a result of many factors of which their economic value is primary. Motivated by a combination of greed and cruel indifference to suffering, “shark finning” is the practice of catching sharks, cutting off the valuable fins, and dumping the shark back into the water to sink, suffer and drown. Widely condemned, the practice has been extensively outlawed, its products vilified and often banned. In Canada we take justifiable pride in being the first G-20 nation to ban the product. There are even vegan shark fin recipes and products available, good for sharks, and maybe people. Real shark fins concentrate β-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA, a neurotoxin that is thought to contribute to a nasty suite of neurodegenerative disorders in people. It is also found in cycads [SAI·kadz], primitive plants that have been around for 280 million years. The problem is that many of the often fatal neurological disorders BMAA can cause, such as Parkinson’s disease, do not display symptoms until long after exposure, negating the likelihood that consumption of shark fin soup at one’s cousin’s wedding several years ago would be seen as resulting in one’s uncle’s terrible affliction years later.
And how does all this involve Animal Alliance of Canada?
Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
From November 14th to the 25th conservationists and those of us interested in protecting wild animals will square off, in Panama, against vested interests to try to reduce declines in dozens of shark species. It will be the first post-pandemic Conference of the Parties (CoP), and the 19th in all of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) [sight-ees], which, since coming into force July 1, 1975, has worked with member nations to assure that international trade in wild animals and plants did not lead to their endangerment or extinction. Starting with 80 countries, it now has over 184.
How does CITES work?
CITES best known tools are the Appendices. Species listed on Appendix I cannot be traded internationally for primarily commercial purposes, and then only with certification from exporting and importing countries that the trade has no negative bearing on the status of the species in the wild. An Appendix II listing allows commercial trade, but requires certification from the country of origin that the trade won’t contribute to the decline in the species. Both apply also to parts and derivatives, such as scales, ivory, skins, meat, blood, fins – whatever is in trade. (Including a species on Appendix II does not necessarily mean that the species is “endangered”. A blog further explaining the complexities of CITES will be posted at a later date.)
CITES decisions determine what wild animal or plant species, their parts or derivatives can be freely traded internationally, but only if there are assurances that the trade will not endanger them or other species. These decisions also determine what cannot be internationally traded for “primarily commercial” purposes and where trading is allowed for any other purpose, it can only be done under strict controls.
Species Survival Network and the Shark Working Group
CITES’ importance to Animal Alliance’s mandate to protect both wildlife and the environment is self-evident. I have been involved with CITES issues since the beginning, attending my first COP in Gaborone, Botswana, in 1983. I am a founding director of Species Survival Network (SSN), which exclusively seeks to protect wildlife by addressing wildlife conservation issues at CITES, serving on their Shark Working Group, now on behalf of Animal Alliance of Canada, a supporting member of SSN.
There are numerous complexities, provisions, and controversies regarding the efficacy of CITES and whether it is a trade or a conservation treaty. But it can and has worked to protect uncountable thousands of wild animals and plants. A trio of proposals for the next CoP will, if passed, see a large number of shark species placed on Appendix II. There is strong opposition, but if we are successful, it should help protect the critically endangered shark species.
At the upcoming CoP stakeholders for or against the proposals cannot vote, but will fiercely lobby government delegates who can, with a two thirds majority needed to win. A win should take a big bite out of the risks sharks face for having such valued fins.
September 8, 2022: Letter (pdf), Glass Frog Proposal to European Commission