The Red List: Shark

Experts agree that certain types of seafood should be avoided because they come from overfished stocks or are harvested in a way that damages the environment. Check out our Know Your Seafood infographic and our GO! Fish campaign for more information on the Red List and the delicious and eco-friendly alternatives.

Shark biology

Many shark species are susceptible to over fishing because they are long-lived, slow-growing, and slow to reproduce. They often have long reproductive cycles and produce only a few young at a time.

Sharks have existed on this planet for over 400 million years, and there are now hundreds of known species. As apex predators, sharks are important to the health of the ocean. From their position at the top of the food web, they keep everything in the ecosystem in balance. Unfortunately, after thriving on this planet for many millennia, sharks are getting wiped out by the human appetite

Photo by Shmulik Blum. 

Sharkfin soup

According to the IUCN, 32% of open ocean shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. Many species have seen declines of 90% over the last 50 years, and some even are even worse off. The scalloped hammerhead population in the North Atlantic, for example, is estimated to be just 2% of historical levels. It is estimated that as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year, most of them the victims of finning, a cruel and wasteful practice in which a shark is caught, its fins are cut off, usually while it’s still alive, and its body (up to 98% of the animal) is thrown back to slowly die. 

The fins are then dried and used to add texture to a Chinese delicacy called sharkfin soup. The Hong Kong fin market imports 50-85% of the world’s fins, but markets for the dish exist in other cities around the world as well, including in the US.

A big problem is that shark is often served in restaurants without any indication of which species it is. A DNA study recently tested 51 bowls of soup from 14 American cities to identify the species they contained. At least one contained the endangered scalloped hammerhead, while many others contained species listed as Vulnerable or Near Threatened.

The fishing methods used to catch sharks, longlines or gillnets, often result in high levels of bycatch, because they unintentionally entangle and kill other animals that are discarded.

Photo by Willy Volk via Flickr, Creative Commons License. 

What you can do

Avoid shark. Because of this severe depletion of shark populations globally, almost all sharks have landed on the Red List

Avoiding shark meat and fins is not only going to keep the ocean healthy – it’s going to keep you healthy too. Long-lived animals at the top of the foodweb accumulate high levels of mercury and other toxins in their tissues, which can cause health problems for humans eating them.

If you see shark fin soup – or any other meal featuring shark – on the menu, it is almost always recommended that you avoid it. Furthermore, you can make a difference by supporting restaurants and grocers that don’t sell or serve it, and by encouraging those that do to stop.

Fortunately, protections for sharks are increasing. Some nations, such as the Marshall Islands and others, have turned their waters into shark sanctuaries in which all species are sharks are fully protected. Others have banned shark finning, such as the EU, which permits fishing for sharks but bans the practice of finning. Five US states have adopted bans on the trade of shark fins. This is fantastic progress, but sadly it is still not enough; the global shark fin trade is still thriving. You can help by supporting the passage of more such measures where you live and around the world.

There are a few select fisheries for sharks that manage the stocks in a reasonable manner. While they didn’t quite make the list of Best Choices, several options are considered Good Alternatives: wild-caught common thresher shark or shortfin mako shark from California and Hawaii, and spiny dogfish caught by bottom longline in British Columbia are on the “Yellow List.”

Even better, is switching to Green List alternatives. Chef Barton Seaver recommends replacing shark fillets in recipes with US farmed sturgeon (another Good Alternative) due to its “density and appealing steak-like chew,” and says it’s great for soups. He also recommends US farmed Cobia, a Best Choice, especially grilled or roasted. There are also many options for creating a mock shark fin soup with a noodle substitute.

Photo by Shmulik Blum. 

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