One week after swimmer Michael Phelps made history in the London Olympic Games, the true giants of the water are drawing attention over on the Discovery Channel. Yes folks, it’s Shark Week again. A huge shark adorns the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Maryland, and sharks have become the channel’s stars of the week.
Personally, I think sharks have an unfair reputation. We need the media to tell more good news stories about the benefits of sharks, not just to demonize them as eating machines. Sadly, the real eating machines are humans — but there are changes afoot that may begin to shift that trend.
Ten years ago I was living in Hong Kong, the epicenter for the global trade in shark fins. At that time, around 7,500 tonnes of shark fins were imported into Hong Kong for human consumption. That is a lot of sharks, somewhere in the region of 28-73 million per year. Most of the fins ended up in shark fin soup, a luxury dish in China which is often served to “give face,” or honour a guest.
Had someone told me at that time that in 2012 there would be a monumental shift in attitude toward consuming shark fin, I wouldn’t have believed it. However, there is a groundswell in Hong Kong, and that change is happening.
Weddings and celebration banquets are going without shark fin soup, the public is protesting, people are wearing shark costumes to raise awareness, and recently the first shark-fin-free big “society” wedding took place. Major global companies, such as HSBC, have pledged not to serve shark fin at their banquets. But possibly the biggest shift seen to date has been the growing number of major hotel chains which have removed shark fin from their menus. This really is great news, and I am proud to have been a small part of this effort in Hong Kong.
Another major announcement came recently when the Chinese government announced that shark fin would be banned at all state banquets. It may take some time for the ban to come into effect, but this represents an important step in the long march to reduce the number of sharks consumed each year.
As people in the East become more aware of the depletion of shark populations, let’s hope Shark Week can bring some balance and understanding in the West — not only for entertainment, but also for our understanding that they aren’t killing machines. Sharks are majestic predators at the apex of their environment, and they need our understanding as well as our respect.
Frazer McGilvray is CI’s senior director for coral reefs, fisheries and food security.