Can’t let Shark Week go by without a culinary connection to those magnificent marine monsters—if there’s time for a bit of reading between watching episodes of Zombie Sharks, Sharkageddon and Sharksanity.
Or maybe catching re-runs of Sand Sharks, Swamp Sharks, Raging Sharks, Avalanche Sharks, Mega Shark, Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark, or my favorite, Sharktopus (a hybrid octopus-in-back, shark-head-upfront killer—created by the military, of course).
But along with a collective fascination we share in watching documentary footage of real sharks—plus the guilty pleasures of straight-to-cable shark-attack movies, there is a serious ecological crisis involving the creatures that have roamed the oceans since before dinosaurs walked the Earth.
While we’re gawking at the sheer insanity of the Sharknado movies—to be clear, sharks can’t really swim across a flooded lawn, leap through the air, crash through someone’s front window and bite their head off while they’re standing knee-deep in water in their living room—real sharks are under attack worse than anything their cinematic cousins are depicted doing in even the most egregious, over-the-top scenes of carnage.
(By the way, do you know where the world’s most dangerous beach for shark attacks is located? It’s not in Australia, land of the Great Whites (although Down Under’s high on the list); it’s New Smyrna Beach in Florida, just south of the more famous Daytona Beach).
Here’s the crisis: According to WildAid, an NGO dedicated to ending illegal trade in wildlife, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, with as many as three-quarters of them sold only for their fins.
China is unquestionably the world’s primary market for shark fins, and due to the country’s growing affluence, a global hot spot for luxury goods, which shark fins were traditionally considered. But here’s the good news: sales of shark fins dropped drastically in the last decade, according to a report by WildAid, mostly because the conservation message is connecting with a younger generation with online access to information about the ecological role sharks fulfill.
For example, sales of shark fins in Guangzhou, considered the hub of the Chinese shark fin trade, have dropped by 82%, to the point that wholesale traders are complaining that sales are decreasing and prices are falling. One wholesaler quoted by WildAid said that, “Shark fin is a dying business.”
Let’s hope so, otherwise, it’s the species itself that’s going to be dying.
Reasons to eschew fish
The decimation of endangered species—and that list is a lengthy one that includes halibut, sturgeon (harvested for caviar), grouper and bluefin tuna—isn’t the only reason that seafood is not the ideal food source that too many nutritionists pretend it is. The fact is that much of the fish people consider “healthy” is contaminated with mercury and other pollutants.
Shark meat in particular is incredibly unhealthy. It’s well known in the medical community that elevated mercury levels can cause neurological problems, blindness, and even death among people who consume contaminated foods regularly.
“Out of 124 sharks sampled, about one-third of them came in with mercury levels that were over the Food and Drug Administration’s action level of one part per million,” Robert Hueter, director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research, told CNN at the time.
A 2004 report from EPA was equally stark: “Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, [and] some contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system. Therefore, FDA and EPA are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.”
Good news for seafood lovers, though: The piscine delicacies EPA said consumers can continue to enjoy? Frozen fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches, canned tuna and catfish.
Talk about a mouth-watering seafood platter.
Those Chick-fil-A ads that playfully depict cows urging fast-food patrons to “Eat mor chikn” might need to be adapted to seafood. Sharks probably wouldn’t be viewed as the friendliest of advertising spokes-animals, but the point needs to be made that when there’s a choice among protein foods, wild animals are the worst—specifically, the rapidly declining stocks of ocean fish that have been harvested to near-depletion around the world.
The good news is we’re not running out of cattle, pigs or fowl—nor, despite activist propaganda to the contrary, out of the resources needed to sustain efficient, modern production methods.
We’ll never see such a series on TV, but in terms of the optimal planetary diet, every week ought to be Red Meat Week.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.