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Genetic Analyses Show Endangered Species in Shark Fin Soup

  • Zulima Palacio

Each year, fishermen catch millions of sharks, cut off their fins, and dump the bodies into the ocean to die. The fins are used to make shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy sold in many countries. Recently, a team of scientists and environmental groups collected soup from restaurants across the United States and analyzed the soups' genetic make-up. They found endangered species on the menu.

More than 73 million sharks are killed every year, mostly for their fins, to make shark fin soup, industry experts and conservationists say. Shark fin soup is a common offering in many Asian restaurants around the world.

A bowl of shark fin soup is being served at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, California, February 14, 2011.

A bowl of shark fin soup is being served at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, California, February 14, 2011.

The Field Museum in Chicago and the Pew Environment Group looked at 51 soup samples in 14 U.S. cities. DNA analyses identified eight shark species, some of them endangered.

“The major finding is that there are endangered species in shark fin soup sold in the United States. One sample taken from Boston had scalloped hammerhead," said Liz Karan, who heads the global shark conservation campaign at the Pew Environment Group. "Scalloped hammerhead is considered endangered by the International Union of Conservation’s red list of endangered species.”

Shark finning - cutting off the fins while the shark is still alive and throwing the body overboard - is banned in the United States. But shark fishing and the import of fins are allowed. So far, only five U.S. states have banned shark fin products.

“Overfishing of sharks is a global problem. Hong Kong is currently the hub of the shark fin trade, and there are about 80 countries that contribute to that trade,” said Karan.

Workers cut off fins from frozen carcasses of a sharks at a fish processing plant in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, November 15, 2011.

Workers cut off fins from frozen carcasses of a sharks at a fish processing plant in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, November 15, 2011.

Over the last 60 years, the world's shark population has plummetted by nearly 80 percent, according to a study by the Pew Environment Group. The group believes sanctuaries for sharks could help them.

“They have a very long life span and often don’t reach sexual maturity until their teens or 20s and, when they do reproduce, some species only have a couple of pups at the time. So their ability to repopulate and recover from overfishing pressures is very small,” said Karan.

The Humane Society International leads one of the largest campaigns to protect sharks. Iris Ho is the wildlife campaigns manager.

“Over 90 percent of the world’s shark fin consumption takes place in China, and Hong Kong alone handles about 50 percent of the global trade in shark fins,” she said.

The Chinese government has announced it will stop serving shark fin soup at official functions. Ho says outside of Asia, the U.S. is the largest market.

”According to government records, in 2010, 34 metric tons of shark fins were imported to the U.S.,” she said.

Sharks have been around for 400 million years, pre-dating the dinosaurs. But scientists believe they may be unable to survive this ongoing assault.
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