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In the Pacific Ocean, longliner boats typically fish for tuna or swordfish, not shark. Boat crews spend weeks on the high seas, setting out fifty miles of line at night with baited hooks every 200 feet. As the boat begins to move, a reel that resembles a massive cotton spool pulls the line in. The crew checks the hooks as they pass by, tossing tuna into the hull and "bycatch," such as drowned turtles and birds, back into the sea.
Hooked sharks present a more complicated task. The crew usually lops off the four valuable fins and part of the tail, then throws the animal overboard, all before the next hook comes in. If the shark is alive, they strike it with a quick blow to the spinal column. But in the assembly-line rush, they do not always aim correctly. Often, the animal is hacked apart as it thrashes, and then is plunged back into the water to bleed to death on the ocean floor.
In many ways, sharks are victims of their own evolutionary success. Thanks to their incredibly sensitive sense of smell, these predators can hone in on baited hooks from miles away. According to a 2006 study published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters that is widely viewed as the definitive count of shark fins in the global market, 23 to 73 million sharks are killed annually to supply the fin trade.
For longliners, about 95 percent of a shark's carcass is trash — not worth the effort or the space it would occupy in the ship's hull. Why? Shark meat is suffused with urea. A primeval animal with a primitive kidney system, sharks carry urine in their blood. McCosker explained that if the animal is not bled out, gutted, and frozen shortly after death, it becomes impossible to clean.
And even if fishermen go through the hassle of properly cleaning shark meat, it's essentially worthless on the global market. In 2006, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency — a fishery management group — concluded: "Fins are by far the most valuable part of the shark. Low prices or non-existent markets for shark meat discourage further retention."
Indeed, shark meat exported from the United States goes for only $1 a pound — fifty times less than shark fin. "Even if markets could be found for shark meat," the Fisheries Agency report continued, "certain biological characteristics make it unlikely that [commercial] vessels would take the time to properly handle and store sharks caught."
Sharks meat, in other words, just isn't worth it for most fishermen. In fact, Costco — contrary to Yee's claim — stopped carrying shark meat years ago because of lack of demand, according to the chain's US seafood buyer. More recently, the chain agreed not to carry shark or a host of other threatened fish in the future because of environmental concerns. Safeway and other major supermarket chains do not carry the meat for similar reasons. Berkeley Bowl sometimes sells mako shark for $7.49 a pound, but the store has trouble maintaining a consistent inventory.
Fins, by contrast, are highly valuable, and because they can be air-dried on the ship's rigging and stored compactly, they're essentially free money. "Because there's such a high profit margin," Chin noted, "fishermen would be fools not to take the fins."'
Typically, when the longline boat docks, the captain distributes the fins among the crew as a bonus. Dealers buy them at port with cash in hand, and send them in crates to Hong Kong for processing. Once they are packaged for trade, the fins are shipped around the world.
Environmentalists recognize that longlining, popularized in the 1970s, is here to stay. But they would like longline fishermen to tie their hooks with nylon, which only sharks can bite through, or to stop setting lines at night, when sharks feed. As long as sharks keep getting hooked, their fins will be hacked off and their bodies discarded to save space for more valuable catch.
In fact, the evidence of the brutal shark fin trade is overwhelming. According to the most recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, published in 2005, of all sharks reeled in at sea, more than 92 percent are ultimately thrown overboard. The discard rate for sharks is more than ten times higher than the rate for marine life as a whole.
A study from Imperial College London found that even when sharks are not finned and tossed overboard, much of their meat goes to waste. The study compared the weight of all shark carcasses brought in from sea annually to the weight of all shark products sold on the global market each year. Although researchers found evidence that there has been some increase in worldwide shark meat consumption over the last several decades, they concluded that at least two-thirds of viable shark meat that comes into port never reaches the marketplace.
In addition, a 2006 Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency that involved scientific observers on longline fishing boats in the tropics found that between 59 and 76 percent of the sharks captured were finned. The deeper the line, the more likely that sharks were hooked, had their fins hacked off, and then were dumped back in the ocean to die.
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