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.

Photos by Shmulik Blum. 

Shark biology

Sharks are fish that have skeletons made of cartilage instead of bone. They’re related to skates and rays, which are also cartilaginous fish. Because cartilage doesn’t fossilize, often the only part of a shark’s body that is preserved after its death is its teeth. Sharks have many rows of teeth, and new ones are constantly being grown because they often fall out.  Sharks also have different scales than bony fish do, called dermal denticles, which are like many tiny teeth all over the skin.

Sharks, as a group, have existed on this planet for longer than 400 million years, and there are now hundreds of known species. Many shark species are long-lived and slow-growing, and they tend to be slow to reproduce. They often have long reproductive cycles and produce only a few young at a time.

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 below them in balance. Unfortunately, after thriving on this planet for many millennia, sharks may have met their match. Sharks are getting wiped out by the human appetite

Sharkfin soup

32% of open ocean shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. 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 the size it once was.

It is estimated that as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year, with most of them being 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 aforementioned endangered scalloped hammerhead, while many others contained species listed as Vulnerable or Near Threatened.

Fishing methods used to catch sharks often result in high levels of bycatch too. Sharks are typically caught using longlines or gillnets, which often unintentionally entangle and kill other animals that are then discarded.

What you can do

Because of this severe depletion of shark populations globally, almost all sharks have landed on the Red List. If you see shark fin soup or any other meal featuring shark on the menu, it is recommended that you avoid it. Furthermore, you can make a difference by supporting restaurants and grocers that don’t sell 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 and the global shark fin trade is still thriving. You can help by supporting the passage of more such measures in your hometown or state and around the world.

There are a few select fisheries for sharks that manage the stocks in a reasonable manner. While they don’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.

As a bonus, avoiding eating shark meat and fins is not only going to keep the ocean healthy – it’s going to keep you healthy as well. Being long-lived animals at the top of the foodweb, sharks accumulate high levels of mercury and other toxins in their tissues, which can cause health problems for humans eating them.

Photos by Shmulik Blum.

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