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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pushing for Sea Changes

Air Date: Week of

Two different forms of shark fin go into this cup of shark fin soup. (Photo: Jeff Young)

At CITES, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, representatives from 175 countries will focus on the necessity of developing management plans for marine animals, including the bluefin tuna and eight species of shark. Sharks are routinely hunted for their fins, which are used as a delicacy in shark fin soup. Stony Brook University professor Demian Chapman does DNA research to identify shark species and geographic origin. He tells host Jeff Young why it’s important to regulate international trade of sharks.


YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts –n this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. Representatives from 175 countries are gathering in Doha, Qatar, for CITES, The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species. CITES sets worldwide rules on products like ivory and furs. This year CITES looks to the seas and could take important action to protect marine animals like the Atlantic bluefin tuna and some corals. Eight species of sharks will also be on the agenda.

A CITES proposal could cut the number of sharks that – too often – end up on the menu.


YOUNG: In Boston’s Chinatown, a waitress serves up bowls of broth with what look like transparent noodles. That’s the cartilage from a shark’s fin. It’s shark-fin soup.

Two different forms of shark fin go into this cup of shark fin soup. (Photo: Jeff Young)

WAITRESS: We serve about 20 to 30 shark fin soup a day. When I was little, we eat it all the time. So, sometimes when we eat it, come back the memories that when we eat it in China or in Hong Kong.

YOUNG: Customers see shark fin soup as a reminder of home. Marine scientist Demian Chapman sees something else.

CHAPMAN: The shark fin soup generates a demand for this product that is responsible for the death of somewhere between 22 and 73 million sharks annually.

YOUNG: Chapman is Assistant Professor at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, where he works with shark DNA. What he can learn from a bowl of soup could help save some shark populations.

CHAPMAN: Well, by taking DNA from the shark fin soup you can actually tell two really important things. Number one, you can tell what species of shark was used to make the soup, and that’s important because different shark species reproduce somewhat differently and some of them are more vulnerable to fishing, and some of them are actually illegal to be captured and used for soup. The other thing you can do is you can use DNA to trace the fin that was used to make the soup all the way back to where it came from and where it was caught. And that’s really important because we need to know which regions contribute most to the shark fin trade and are catching the most sharks.

YOUNG: So, I understand how you could identify the species, but how do you identify the geographic region? How do you get that from the DNA sample?

CHAPMAN: The first thing is we get samples of the shark from all over the world, and we generate this map of where certain regions of DNA are the same or different. So we kind of map the genetic diversity of the shark species all across the globe. And then when we get to the point when we’re looking at a shark fin we can just take that same region of DNA and we sequence it, we look at our map, and we can trace it back to where it came from. It’s important because there are certain species that are very heavily fished in certain areas, and we need to know that so we can apply management in those areas.

Professor Demian Chapman. (Courtesy of Stonybrook University)

YOUNG: So, what sharks are we concerned about here?

CHAPMAN: We’re particularly interested in protecting hammerhead sharks; the reason is that hammerhead sharks have extremely valuable fins. In fact, their fins go for around about 120 U.S. dollars per kilogram. And the hammerheads and many other sharks, they breed very, very slowly; they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about the same age that we are when we reach sexual maturity. And unlike, boney fish that spawn millions of eggs into the water column, sharks give birth to a relatively small number of offspring at a time.

So, they just can’t withstand heavy fishing pressure. For example, the scalloped hammerhead, one of the species up for listing, is in the northwest Atlantic there have been declines in the last 15 years, somewhere between 75 and 89 percent. So, that’s a pretty staggering level of decline for that particular species. There’s another species, the dusky shark in the same region has declined by more than 85 percent in the last 20 years. So, it’s not just a modest problem, these sharks are literally disappearing.

The Scalloped Hammerhead Shark is highly prized for its fin as the principle ingredient in shark fin soup. (Courtesy of The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.)

YOUNG: And the pressure that’s forcing down the populations, it’s all just about the fin?

CHAPMAN: Yeah, the bulk of shark fisheries around the world – I mean the main product is these fins, and the fin, it’s really just a luxury dish and it’s really just sea-going status symbol. The shark fin soup used to be the emperor’s dish in ancient Chinese culture, so it’s something that conveyed wealth and status. So what’s really happened is that as the Chinese economy has grown in the last 20 years, it’s this middle class has sprung up and of course when they have a banquet or a wedding the ultimate dish to serve is the emperor’s dish, the shark fin soup.

YOUNG: So this month is the 15th meeting of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, or CITES, in Doha, and sharks are on the agenda there. What would you like to see come out of the convention meeting?

CHAPMAN: What I would really like to see happen in the next couple weeks at Doha is for the seven large shark species that make up a big part of the global fin trade, I would like to see these species listed on what’s called Appendix Two. Now, Appendix Two is not a complete trade ban, but what it does is means that any fin of these species that crosses international borders will have to be accompanied by permits and that will give us a way to determine which places are contributing most to the fin trade, and in what volumes these species are being traded in. And in essence, they will be lifting the shroud of secrecy off the shark fin trade for the first time in history.

YOUNG: Demian Chapman at Stonybrook University’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science. Thank you very much.

CHAPMAN: No problem.



Demian Chapman’s Web Page

CITES Home Page

Click Here to See a Video of Demian Chapman on Sharks


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