The Great Shark Slaughter 

Lovers of shark fin soup say it's a cultural tradition, but science proves it's brutal and inhumane.

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Another 2006 study of the eastern Pacific Ocean found that 85 percent of total shark and ray catch was discarded. Blue sharks made up 89 percent of the total shark catch. All of them were finned. 

And a 1999 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations looked at finning rates in the Pacific Ocean, also based on observer data. The most common catch was blue shark, and 85 percent of them were finned. Of the silky sharks captured, 48 percent were finned. And of the whitetip sharks caught, 62 percent were finned.

In short, study after study has come to the same conclusion: Sharks aren't caught for their meat. They're hacked apart so that people can sip expensive soup.

Still, for many in the Bay Area's Asian-American community, a proposed ban on the sale and import of shark fins is viewed as a cultural — even racist — attack. The problem, they say, is not their age-old tradition of enjoying shark fin soup, but widespread illegal fishing practices.

Chinese-American market and restaurant owners have joined forces with fishermen and seafood processors to paint the proposed ban, which resembles a Hawaii law passed last spring, as discriminatory and unnecessary. Selina Low, a manager at East Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Alameda, echoed the common refrain that plenty of shark meat is sold in the Bay Area, and not all fins are derived from illegal practices. "The poachers are giving restaurants a bad reputation," she said. "If you outlaw shark fins, you might as well ban chicken, pork, and beef."

Taylor Chow, owner of American Tai Wah Trading Corporation in Oakland and spokesman for the Oriental Food Association, stakes out a similar position. "We have no reason to be ashamed about our shark fin-using culture," he said. "About a thousand years ago, the Chinese already knew to use every single part of the shark, including shark fin, which in other places is regarded as scrap."

San Francisco fin processor Michael Kwong argues that, instead of pushing for bans, environmentalists should help the state crack down on suppliers who break domestic laws. Kwong's family has been involved with what he calls "the craft of fin production" since 1967, operating as the Hop Woo Company. Turned off by the headache of dealing with importing, Kwong gets only about 15 percent of his stock from the shark fin mecca of Hong Kong. The rest comes from East Coast and Gulf of Mexico fishermen who land sharks with their fins attached. The price is higher, he said, but it's worth it to save himself customs delays. After he takes the fins, the shark's meat is used for such things as fish food, while the creatures' jaws are sold at tourist shops.

Last month, Kwong stood with Senator Yee and denounced the proposed California ban on the sale and import of shark fins, arguing that it punishes those who derive most of their product from sustainable sources and unfairly targets Asians. As for the fraction of his fins that come from Hong Kong, Kwong condemned the practice of finning, but said there wasn't much he could do: "I don't own the boat; I can't control someone that's two hundred miles out."

But seafood businesses like Kwong's are not the norm in California, and laws around the globe that ban finning — but not the sale of shark fins — have proven to be mostly futile. According to UN figures, the number of shark fins sold worldwide exploded in the past two decades. In 1985, international seafood markets reported exporting 2,699 metric tons of shark fins. By 1999, exports had grown by 76 percent to 4,763 metric tons. By 2004, they had shot up to 6,220 metric tons. In two decades, the international shark fin market skyrocketed by more than 130 percent.

The Galapagos Marine Reserve, a world heritage site, is often cited as an example of the difficulty of implementing bans on finning. Officials there have seized up to 10,000 fins at a time, and have even caught poachers using endangered Galapagos sea lions and dolphins as bait. Peter Knights, a shark expert who founded the San Francisco environmental group WildAid, said trained sniffer dogs uncovered a new cache of fins poached from the Galapagos reserve just last month.

Finning is especially common in legally protected areas, Knights said, because it's too risky for fishermen to keep whole sharks on their boats. The bans on fishing in reserves, in other words, offer no incentive for fishermen to catch sharks and then sell their meat in a sustainable way. Instead, fishermen use small boats to quickly nab hundreds of sharks in a short period of time, hack off their fins, and throw the bulky carcasses back in the ocean — effectively fishing out the entire area without arousing suspicion. "Less than one percent of ocean is marine reserve, but they still go there," Knights said of the appeal that reserves hold for shark finners.

Knights was one of the first to catch on to the large-scale decimation of sharks. Raised in England and educated at the London School of Economics, Knights could be described as the Indiana Jones of the preservationist world. He honed his eco-warrior skills working as an undercover ecological investigator, infiltrating local crime rings to uncover trade in illegal wildlife products such as bear bile and rhino horns.

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