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The fin issue 

A proposed ban on shark fin sales in California aims to stave off the extinction of the ocean predators by prohibiting a traditional Asian delicacy

click to enlarge POINT OF CONTENTION :  Shark fins are a key ingredient in a traditional soup eaten primarily at special events in Chinese communities. A proposed ban on their sale in California passed a Senate subcommittee on June 28. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • POINT OF CONTENTION : Shark fins are a key ingredient in a traditional soup eaten primarily at special events in Chinese communities. A proposed ban on their sale in California passed a Senate subcommittee on June 28.

The shark silenced the room.

Hundreds of people had been talking, laughing, shouting, trying to spot the unmistakable predatory shape amid the other fish endlessly circling in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Outer Bay exhibit.

Children on class field trips pressed as close as they could to the transparent wall, yelping whenever one of the tank’s larger fish loomed into view. Nervous giggles punctuated the frequent questions: “Where is it?” “Is that it?”

When the creature of the hour finally swam to the forefront, the talking stopped. The laughing died away. An almost reverent hush fell over the crowd.

Nothing else looks like a great white: its sleek, muscular body broken up by gill slits like slashes in gray silk; its flat-black haunted and haunting eyes; its slightly gaping mouth hinting at the white arrowhead teeth inside. Topped by an iconic fin, its silhouette triggers a primal fear response: Quiet! Don’t draw any attention! Something that can eat you is right over there!

Though only 5 or 6 feet long, the shark, collected in August 2004 and transported to the aquarium a month later, dominated visitors’ attention for the half a year it cruised its million gallons of home-away-from-home seawater. After its release, the shark continued to fascinate, revealing (with help from an electronic tag) a 30-day, 100-mile journey that sometimes extended to 800 feet below the ocean’s surface. The monitoring device ultimately dislodged somewhere in the waters off Santa Barbara, indicating the fish passed San Luis Obispo County and Northern Santa Barbara County on its swim south.

It was just one of about half a dozen great whites the aquarium has exhibited in the last seven years—and only one of many species of sharks that visit, move through, or call the salty stretch off the Central Coast home.

By many accounts, however, our Pacific neighbors are dwindling. However we feel about the ancient fish—which, statistically, aren’t much of a threat to humans, no matter what the more primitive corners of our fight-or-flight-wired brains say—scientific studies have revealed that some shark species have declined by 90 percent or more in recent years. Some are facing extinction.

Pinpointing the culprit behind their marine disappearance isn’t easy, mostly because sharks are so mysterious. They’re difficult to track and a challenge to observe with consistency. There are still massive gaps, yawning like black undersea chasms, in our collective knowledge of the elusive animals that spend the bulk of their lives—traveling, mating, birthing—far from eyes on land.

Such holes present a challenge to researchers seeking to gather data in their efforts to preserve sharks and all their otherworldly allure—which makes the existing data all the more precious. Shark enthusiasts tend to point to a 2006 study headed by Imperial College’s Shelley Clarke, who studied fins for sale in Hong Kong markets to extrapolate an estimated 73 million sharks hauled out of global oceans each year for their fins.

Finning is the subject of the hour in shark circles. It refers to slicing off that angular, movie-poster-ready triangle and discarding the rest of the animal to die, unused. While not all fins are harvested that way, the practice is stoking ire behind a proposed bill currently in the state Senate. AB 376—the “Shark Protection Bill”—would prohibit the sale, distribution, or possession of shark fins in California.

Bloody waters

Shark fin soup is a traditionally Asian dish, served primarily at special events, like weddings or parties to celebrate a birth in the family. The dorsal delicacy is pricy; a bowl of it can range from $30 to $100.

State Assemblymember Paul Fong, who represents California’s 22nd District, is familiar with the soup. He grew up eating it, and said it’s a sign of affluence. To serve it is to impress your guests.

“The cartilage, it doesn’t taste like anything,” he said. “It just snaps in your mouth.”

Then he saw a WildAid-made video about finning. The group aims to end illegal wildlife trade of all stripes (finning itself is illegal in U.S. waters) through outreach and education. One of their public awareness campaigns features the NBA’s Yao Ming in a trendy restaurant, pushing away a white bowl of the beige broth as a shark in a nearby tank streams blood into the clear water. The towering Houston Rocket, one of China’s top celebrities, says, “Remember: When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”

WildAid’s efforts made an impact on Fong, whose district office is in Mountain View.

“Now I’m leading a crusade to have everyone stop eating it,” the assemblymember said.

Fong called the act highlighted in the WildAid campaign “horrendous,” citing that ubiquitous figure—73 million sharks killed annually—as the impetus for his bill.

“There’s definitely a challenge when it comes to really identifying the scale of the problem, because the practice of shark finning—which is cutting the fins off a shark and throwing it back into the ocean—is easy to hide,” said Zack Bradford, an ocean policy research analyst with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Bradford has been with AB 376 since the beginning, helping to write the legislation, fact checking, and campaigning. He explained that a lot of fishing happens in international waters, and many countries allow shark fins to land on their shores.

“There’s no way to know how much is going on out at sea,” he said.

A complex net of laws exists to catch people who would deprive sharks of their fins and nothing else. There are weight ratios that allow landing fins proportionate to meat from the rest of the shark. Many regulations sit on the books, but loopholes in the legalese allow some fin traders to sail through unscathed. The underground nature of collecting fins leads to reporting issues come sale time, so suspicious scientists openly wonder whether the trade’s toll is underreported.

The best guesses, however—even the more modest ones—are still troubling to people with an eye on the oceans. As an environmentalist, Fong is worried.

He warned against removing a top predator from a system, saying such a move would unbalance everything else. He envisioned a void sending shock waves through the marine food chain, down through layers of fish to the plankton “that gives us half the oxygen on this planet.”

click to enlarge FISHY AMBASSADOR:   Visitors to the Sea Life Center in Avila Beach can touch swell sharks, which are docile and used to handling. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FISHY AMBASSADOR: Visitors to the Sea Life Center in Avila Beach can touch swell sharks, which are docile and used to handling.

“This is a humanitarian effort,” he said. “Anything that affects the environment really affects me. It got to my core values.”

His bill, introduced with Assemblymember Jared Huffman on Feb. 14, passed the Assembly with a floor vote of 65 to 8.

It was next scheduled for a June 28 vote in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. From there it moves to the Appropriations Committee, then to the floor, then to the governor’s desk.

Fong said he’s faced some opposition from Chinatown merchants and Oriental food suppliers. Arguments against the ban include calls for preservation of a traditional dish not familiar to the rest of the world. Veal certainly has its detractors who rail against its cruelty, but it’s still on the menu in many restaurants. And how about foie gras?

People who mount counter-arguments to that defense point out that cows and geese aren’t in imminent danger of being wiped off the face of the Earth.

Fong has a short answer for anyone who thinks he’s going after a particular heritage, one he happens to share: “It’s a practice in the culture. It’s not part of the culture.”

The Chinatown Merchants Association, based in San Francisco, didn’t respond to a request for comment as of press time. Neither did state Sen. Leland Yee, also on the record as opposing the bill, saying an outright ban on fin sales goes too far in its attempts to protect sharks.

What’s eating you?

Calls to half a dozen Chinese restaurants and fish markets around the Central Coast garnered similar answers to the question of who carries shark fin for sale in the area: “No one here.” “No.” “I don’t know where has it.”

A visit to a local Asian specialty shop yielded one dusty can of soup, its nearly abstract label alone among other, better-stocked items not typically found on Western shelves, including various preserved fish and duck eggs.

One area resident who’s eaten the soup on several occasions said that since the fin takes on the dominant flavor of whatever broth it’s in, eating it is more about texture than taste: “stringy and crunchy.”

He said he and his wife have eaten the soup at banquets in China and Hong Kong, but backed off after learning about the environmental toll wrought by its preparation.

Any shark can be used in shark fin soup. While certain sharks with large fins are more sought after, every shark is considered to carry a potential ingredient. Once removed, the fin is reduced to its internal structure.

“It’s got these needly, stringy strips of cartilage called fin needles,” the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Bradford said.

Those shark-made slivers go into the soup, and the bigger and fresher they are, the larger the price tag they carry.

As Juliet Eilperin noted in her recently released book Demon Fish, shark fins for sale in some areas are smaller than they used to be, indicating that younger specimens and/or small species of sharks are being taken more often as their larger relatives become more and more scarce.

Face to face

A swell shark feels like wet sandpaper. Its skin is rough to the touch, slightly yielding, and it ripples as the shark flexes its cold, muscular body in an effort to get back to swimming free in the water.

The Avila Sea Life Center has a few of the oceanic ambassadors that guests can pet—gently, of course, and always with help from an employee or volunteer.

While the organization has been around for 12 years of education and school science trips, and constructed a building five years ago with money from a grant tied to the oil spill cleanup in the area, its aquarium only opened to the public in Avila Beach about a year ago.

“My small personal goal is to make everybody fall in love with the ocean,” said Executive Director Priscilla Kiessig.

As part of that mission, the center teaches about sharks. There’s another dusty can of shark fan soup in an upstairs classroom, so now there are at least two known cans of it in the area.

click to enlarge FISHY AMBASSADOR:   Visitors to the Sea Life Center in Avila Beach can touch swell sharks, which are docile and used to handling. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FISHY AMBASSADOR: Visitors to the Sea Life Center in Avila Beach can touch swell sharks, which are docile and used to handling.

Downstairs, there’s a little tank with a baby swell shark—named for its less-than-threatening habit of sucking in water to expand and thereby make itself more difficult to pull from some rocky crevice—and some horn shark egg cases, which look like crosses between Christmas ornaments and industrial drill bits. There’s another tank for the “teenagers,” which include some more swell sharks and a couple of pocket-sized leopard sharks. Then there’s the touch tank, where swell sharks and a horn shark—named for prominent spikes that grow from its dorsal fin—laze around in piles like scaly brown cats unless they’re lifted by a volunteer to be stroked with two fingers. A more active and “classic”-looking smooth hound shark shares that tank, but doesn’t like to be touched.

A large tank houses some several-foot-long specimens, including a leopard shark that circles with effortless grace, nosing at the chunks of food dropped in by lead aquarist Amanda Howarth.

A couple of the center’s sharks came from the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum in May, when that organization’s five-year-old shark tank broke down in a spectacular spray of salty water. Executive Director Kelly White O’Neill recently mimed her efforts to find the problem amid the chaos while dressed—then, as she is now—in a classy outfit and shoes better suited to an elegant luncheon.

“It’s an incredibly delicate mechanical system,” she said before praising the fellow nonprofits and teams of volunteers that rescued every living thing in the tank—which also included garibaldi, hermit crabs, and sea stars—and cleaned up the three inches of water flooding the museum floors. The Avila Sea Life Center and the Ty Warner Sea Center in Santa Barbara adopted the suddenly homeless animals, a move for which White O’Neill is incredibly thankful.

The sharks were a big draw for the museum, which celebrated them with last year’s Sharktober events and regular public feedings, talks, and educational efforts about the natural world and—after a local attack last year—ocean safety. Their loss will create a void White O’Neill hopes to fill with some fresh exhibits. In the meantime, she’s happy that the animals ended up in places with sea life as a sole focus.

“The sharks that we had were sharks that both of those collections were looking for,” she said.

Avila’s Howarth, a 2010 Cal Poly animal science grad, was happy to welcome the new residents to her center: a smooth hound and horn shark. She and a co-worker drove to Santa Maria and “wrangled” the sharks after a call from the museum, she said.

Howarth initially focused her education on zoos and exotic animal care, then worked at PetSmart in the fish section.

“Quite honestly, when I first started working at PetSmart, I thought [fish] were stupid,” she said. “The most boring pet ever.”

Then she got to know her underwater charges, which won her over. She took an internship at the aquarium in Long Beach, then was hired at the Avila center, which now boasts—in addition to a kelp tank, octopus, and assorted other sea creatures—more than a dozen sharks.

She’s happy to talk about sharks and their importance to oceans, both locally and around the world.

“Their main job is to keep the food chain in check,” she said, echoing the reasoning behind Fong’s bill introduction. “Without sharks, fish populations would just explode … until everything died.”

She went on to explain her philosophy on people’s attitudes toward the often-maligned animals: “Sharks kind of get a bad rap as scary and murderous, but actually more people are killed by pigs each year than by sharks.”

“Vending machines,” she said, adding to the list of things that cause more fatalities annually. “Lightning.”

Howarth explained that the sharks are more typically scared of humans, shying away from tongs she uses to feed them at the center. The two young leopard sharks warmed up to her relatively quickly, however, and she feels rewarded for her efforts. She actually enjoys caring for the fish that represent some peoples’ scariest nightmares.

“The only animal I’ve ever been bitten by here is our halibut,” she said.

The balance

Policy analyst Bradford repeated what Fong and Howarth said about sharks in his emphasis on why they’re important.

“The biggest risk is if we lose sharks, we lose a very important part of the ocean ecosystem,” he said. “Sharks are known as an apex predator, which means that they are exhibiting a top-down control on everything beneath them.”

Many species of sharks don’t reproduce very quickly, meaning fewer carry on the species line as more are caught. Their absence would lead to their prey multiplying unchecked. That newly abundant crowd would then overfeed on its own food sources, cutting vast swaths through a formerly stable ocean system and ultimately eating its way toward its own demise.

- LOCAL EDUCATORS: - Some of the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum’s sharks made their way to the Avila Sea Life Center—and its tank will soon join them. -  - To learn more about the museum in Santa Maria, visit smvdiscoverymuseum.org or call 928-8414. -  - To learn more about the center in Avila Beach, visit www.sealifecenter.org or call 595-7280. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • LOCAL EDUCATORS: Some of the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum’s sharks made their way to the Avila Sea Life Center—and its tank will soon join them.
    To learn more about the museum in Santa Maria, visit smvdiscoverymuseum.org or call 928-8414.
    To learn more about the center in Avila Beach, visit www.sealifecenter.org or call 595-7280.

“The food web really depends on predators at the top controlling organisms beneath them so they don’t run amok,” Bradford said.

Bradford’s main duty is to “do rapid assessment of new and emerging ocean issues, as well as to work on our directed campaigns for legislation at the state and federal level.”

He explained that the aquarium’s mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans, and the policy group aims to trigger action to that end. Sharks have been a part of the facility since it was built and represent a key species for its conservation work.

Bradford studied chemistry as an undergrad, then went on to a master’s degree in environmental science and management, specializing in conservation planning. He said he knew he wanted to work for a nonprofit and was interested in advocacy work. He started grad school in Monterey, but switched to Santa Barbara where he also worked for a small advocacy group. He then began freelance copy editing for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which led to his hiring there.

Now, he has sharks on his mind. When talking about the proposed legislation sitting in the Senate, he cites figures off the top of his head and quickly pulls up research while on the phone. He e-mails more data after an interview ends.

Shark fins constituted at least a million dollar industry in California in 2010, he said. Import data reveals that San Francisco and Los Angeles are two of the big U.S. entry points for shark fins.

“We also know San Francisco and Los Angeles have the biggest Asian markets in California, as well as on the West Coast,” he said.

For now, those markets can sell the fins that command such high prices from the people who prize them. If enacted, AB 376 would include a grace period that would allow merchants to sell off their existing stock, because the dried, peeled fins have a long shelf life and often represent a serious investment of capital.

Since it can be stored so long and come from a variety of sources—legitimate or black market—exactly how much of the product is out there is a mystery. But that’s fitting—if not promising—as a representation of the sharks themselves: creatures that inspire awe, terror, or affection; that carry out hidden lives in an environment so alien to us land dwellers; and that may or may not be around in the future to yield more of their secrets to a world hungry for answers to questions of conservation, hungry to explore the nature of our own ultimate survival, and hungry for the very fins off their backs.

 

Contact Executive Editor Ryan Miller at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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