Shark's Tale

(Courtesy of The Star)

Shark's Tale

A photo essay by a World Press Photo award-winner reveals the stark story behind an urgent environmental issue.

US President Barack Obama found himself in hot soup over the issue on Sunday, and the weekend before that, a Malaysian state weighed in on it, too. Even couples getting hitched have an opinion about it now. Yes, it’s downright trendy now to say no to shark fin soup.

Obama decided he wanted some dim sum while he was in San Francisco and stopped at a Chinese restaurant not realising that it had shark fin soup on its menu. The world’s media had a field day with the faux pas – after all, in January last year, Obama himself signed the Shark Conservation Act that toughened regulations by banning imports of into America fins that are not attached to corresponding shark carcasses.

In Malaysia, Sabah is moving towards banning shark hunting in its waters after an almost two-year long “Save the sharks” campaign by NGOs; hotels and restaurants operators in the state are no longer advocating the dish although it is still available.

Earlier in the month, The Star reported how couples are now leaving the dish out of their wedding receptions. Environmentalist Sara Sukor, for instance, said she and her husband had specified a “shark fin-free” wedding on their invitation cards when they got married in 2009. Sara, 30, said she had stopped eating shark’s fin soup since she was 17 after finding out how sharks suffered when their fins were harvested.

But while some parts of the world are getting on board the campaign to save the world’s sharks, economic trends mean that the demand for fins is still expanding in other parts of the world. Scientists recently reported that as many as 90% of sharks in the world’s open oceans have disappeared because of a growing international demand for shark fin soup, especially popular with China’s expanding middle class. As the once ceremonial dish becomes more accessible, up to 73 million sharks are being killed a year, taking one in three shark species to the brink of extinction.

Humane Society International deputy director of wildlife Rebecca Regnery, commenting on Obama’s misstep, said shark’s fin was still on offer at a majority of large Chinese restaurants in Western cities with large Asian populations.

“Usually the restaurants say they are happy not to serve it, but then everyone is going to go to their competitor and because of demand they are obligated to serve it,” she said.

“If it’s the opposite, and people go to a competitor that does not serve shark’s fin, then it starts making economic sense to take it off the menu,” she said.

In an effort to show graphically what finning does to sharks and how high the demand for fins remains, photographer Paul Hilton followed shark fishermen out to sea and then followed their catch through the production process, documenting everything from capture to killing and processing to selling in stores. His photo essay won the third prize in the Nature category in the 2011 World Press Photo awards that were recently announced. – Agencies