I’ve eaten a lot of sharks in my lifetime. As a kid in the twin islands of T&T, Sundays at Maracas Bay meant a big, juicy shark and bake, and shark meat was plentiful on the supermarket shelves. All that started changing a few years ago. The fishermen weren’t catching enough sharks, and if they did they were immature tiny little things. The price of shark and bake went up from $10 to $15 to $20 to $30, and now I don’t even know how much one costs, and whether or not it actually is shark anymore. Vendors at Maracas say they serve whatever fish happens to be caught because the sharks are simply not there anymore.
So who cares about sharks? Why should we worry about their population decline? People are for the most part afraid of sharks — just think of the movie Jaws. But statistically dogs kill more people every year than sharks. Our fear is mostly irrational, and tied in with our very rational fear of the power and darkness of the sea.
But because of this apathy, hatred or fear of sharks, very few are coming out in defense of sharks, and trying to save them. The question remains though, where have all the sharks gone? I can answer that question because I see them every day, or at least certain parts of them. Hong Kong happens to be the hub of the global shark fin trade, though fins are sold all over the world in any Chinatown. Every day I go past the Dried Seafood District, about ten minutes from my apartment, and see fins for sale. The fins are used in shark fin soup, a delicacy in China once reserved for the emperors, and today a status symbol of the nouveau riche. From your daily dim sum restaurant to weddings and state events, shark fin soup, despite its high price, has become a staple on the table.
And a lucrative trade it is — so lucrative that the shark meat itself now has no value, because the fins fetch such a high price. For those of you unfamiliar with the finning industry, the sharks are caught, finned alive, and dumped back into the sea to sink to the bottom, drowning. It is the equivalent of killing an elephant for its tusks, a rhino for its horn, a tiger for its skin. The fins are hung to dry and cure, and shipped to Hong Kong and many other parts of Asia to be sold to restaurants and made into soup. Imagine that — one of the oldest animals on earth is being decimated, all for a bowl of soup.
The NGO Papa Bois Conservation asked me to get some pictures of shark fins being sold and traded here in Hong Kong, and I was more than happy to hit the road with camera in hand. But taking pictures is not so easy. The shop owners stand vigil at the entrance, shooing away tourists and people who try to take pictures. The shops have extensive security, with many cameras watching you. And a few have signs that say they have the right to take your camera away if they catch you taking pictures. The shop owners know the fin trade is a controversial and increasingly unpopular one, and are taking measures to make sure people don’t come and interfere.
Nonetheless, you can’t stop people from snapping a few shots, so snap away I did, and here are just a few samples, made into a slideshow for Papa Bois Conservation. There are so many shops in the Dried Seafood District selling shark fins that I only ended up taking pictures on one side of the street because trying to take shots of all the stores would have taken too long. The trucks arrive non-stop to deliver new shipments of fins, all legally brought into Hong Kong. And people are still willing to pay high prices for this product.
Papa Bois Conservation is an activist group, and they are working hard to get the Fisheries division in T&T to wake up to the fact that sharks are heading towards extinction and that we cannot allow foreign fishing vessels to rape the Caribbean seas. T&T is on the list of top exporters of shark fins, and PBC is working with the local media to raise awareness of this problem.
Please watch the video, feel free to share, and do what you can to be part of the solution. Of course, if offered, don’t ever eat shark fin soup or shark fin dumplings, though this is not much of a problem in Trinidad where the dish is not popular. Also, don’t buy tiny steaks of shark meat sourced from juvenile sharks, because sharks take many years to reach maturity and reproduce and they need a chance to keep their numbers up. And check out Papa Bois Conservation on Facebook, and learn more about the issue.