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Consumption of Sharks
One of the biggest threats facing sharks is driven by the demand for shark fins, which are used to make the prestigious Far Eastern delicacy Shark Fin Soup. It has been estimated that the fins of 26 - 73 million sharks are traded worldwide each year, with a best estimate calculated at 38 million sharks (Clarke et al. 2006). Although shark finning is illegal in many parts of the world, including Europe, it is still legal to buy and sell shark fins (and associated products) in most countries, so shark fin soup still regularly appears on restaurant menus. For more information about the fin trade visit the Shark Trust’s Stop Shark Finning Campaign.
However it is not only shark fins that are consumed. Shark meat is often available in restaurants and supermarkets, although isn’t always obviously named as shark and instead is often sold under other ambiguous names. Fish and chip shops for instance may sell Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) as Rock Salmon, Flake or Huss, which means consumers are often unaware they are eating a species of shark which is Critically Endangered in parts of its range. Other shark food products may masquerade under the names of smoked fish strips, dried cod/stockfish or imitation crabmeat.
Sharks appear on menus around the world in a variety of different traditional delicacies. In countries including the Solomon Islands, Taiwan Province of China and Japan, shark stomachs and livers are consumed and even the skin can appear on menus having been dried and the dermal denticles removed. In the Maldives, the eggs of Gulper Sharks are eaten and in Kesennuma in northern Japan, Salmon Sharks hearts are served as sashimi. Hákarl is putrefied Greenland or Basking Shark and is an infamous delicacy served in Iceland. The flesh is poisonous when fresh due to the highly toxic levels of ammonia and uric acid, so the meat is cured through a fermentation process which involves burying the meat in the ground for a number of weeks before hanging it in strips to dry. The whole process takes several months before the meat is ready for consumption. Despite looking inoffensive when served as small cubes on cocktail sticks, this dish is said to be an acquired taste as it has a very distinctive ammonia-rich smell which can be extremely difficult to stomach.
Large sharks accumulate high levels of methylmercury. As a result, eating shark meat regularly can be harmful to human health as it can damage the nervous system as well as cause brain damage (Zahir et al. 2005). Mercury occurs naturally in the environment but can also be released through industrial pollution. When mercury accumulates in water, it becomes more toxic as it is turned into methylmercury and this is absorbed by fish. Methylmercury isn’t easily excreted so will bioaccumulate over time, longer-lived species higher up the food chain will therefore contain higher concentrations (Pethybridge et al. 2009). Large predatory fish (such as Shortfin Mako or Blue Sharks) have the highest levels as they have had longer to accumulate it through a combination of age and diet.
As well as being targeted for their fins and meat, sharks are often caught accidentally as bycatch in nets or on long-lines by fisheries targeting other species (such as tuna).
The Shark Trust therefore recommends that consumers eat sustainably sourced seafood. Many retailers will state if meat has been sourced from sustainably managed fisheries or from non-threatened shark populations – however if you're not sure ask for proof.
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