If these animals lived on land there would be a global outcry. But the great beasts roaming the savannahs of the open seas summon no such support. Big sharks, giant tuna, marlin and swordfish should have the conservation status of the giant panda or the snow leopard. Yet still we believe it is acceptable for fishmongers to sell them and celebrity chefs to teach us how to cook them.
A study in this week's edition of the journal Science reveals the disastrous collapse of the ocean's megafauna. The great sharks are now wobbling on the edge of extinction. Since 1972 the number of blacktip sharks has fallen by 93 percent, tiger sharks by 97 percent and bull sharks, dusky sharks and smooth hammerheads by 99 percent. Just about every population of major predators is now in freefall.
Another paper, published in Nature four years ago, shows that more than 90 percent of large predatory fish throughout the global oceans have gone.
You respond with horror when you hear of Chinese feasts of bear paws and tiger meat. But this is no different, as far as conservation is concerned, from eating shark's fin soup or swordfish or steaks from rare species of tuna. One practice is considered barbaric in Europe and North America. The other is promoted in restaurant reviews and recipes in the color supplements of respectable newspapers.
In terms of its impact on ecology and animal welfare, shark fishing could be the planet's most brutal industry. While some sharks are taken whole, around 70 million are caught every year for their fins. In many cases, the fins are cut off and the shark is dumped, alive, back into the sea. It can take several weeks to die. The longlines and gillnets used to catch them snare whales, dolphins, turtles and albatrosses.
The new paper shows that shark catching also causes a cascade of disasters through the foodchain. Since the large sharks were removed from coastal waters in the western Atlantic, the rays they preyed on have multiplied tenfold and have wiped out all the main commercial species of shellfish.
Much of this trade originates in east Asia, where shark's fin soup -- which sells for up to US$200 a bowl -- is a sign of great wealth and rank, like caviar in Europe. The global demand for shark's fin is rising by about 5 percent a year.
THE SPANISH CONNECTION
But if you believe that this is yet another problem for which the Chinese can be blamed and the Europeans absolved, consider this: The world's major importer -- and presumably re-exporter -- of sharks is Spain. Its catches have increased ninefold since the 1990s and it has resisted -- in most cases successfully -- every European and global effort to conserve its prey.
The Spanish defend their right to kill rare sharks as fiercely as the Japanese defend their right to kill rare whales. The fishing industry, traditionally dominated by Galician fascists, exerts an extraordinary degree of leverage over the socialist government.
The Spanish government, in turn, usually gets its way in Europe. The EU, for example, claims to have banned the finning of sharks. But the ratio it sets for the weight of fins to the weight of bodies landed by fishermen is 5 percent. As edible fins make up only 2 percent of the shark's bodyweight, this means that two-and-a-half finless sharks can be returned to the water for every one that comes ashore.