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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shark fin soup alters an ecosystem

More CNN coverage on shark fin soup.

Shark fin soup alters an ecosystem
December 10, 2008 -- Updated 1813 GMT, By Lisa Ling Special to CNN CNN Photo Gallery

Sharks existed before there were dinosaurs and they pre-date humans by millions of years. Yet, in a relatively short period of time, humans and their technological arsenal have driven most shark populations to the verge of extinction.

This is bad news for the world's oceans. Sharks are the top predator in the ocean and are vital to its ecosystem. The rapid reduction of sharks is disrupting the ocean's equilibrium, according to Peter Knights, director of WildAid International.

"These are ecosystems that have evolved over millions and millions of years," said Knights. "As soon as you start to take out an important part of it, it's like a brick wall, you take out bricks [and] eventually it's going to collapse."

When sharks attack humans, it inevitably makes news - it is a sexy story. What is rarely reported is that worldwide, sharks kill an average of 10 people every year. It's usually when people venture into a shark's habitat and not the other way around. By contrast, humans kill around 100 million sharks every year - a number that has ballooned in recent years because of the enormous demand for shark fins to make shark fin soup.

To satiate the appetites of upwardly mobile Chinese, fishermen traverse all corners of the Earth's oceans in search of sharks or, more specifically, their fins. Because space is limited on fishing vessels and shark bodies are bulky and not considered as valuable, fishermen often catch the sharks, saw off their fins and toss the sharks back into the water. Without their fins, sharks cannot swim and they sink to the ocean floor, where they're picked at by other fish and left to die.

The fate of the shark is grim. Increasing public awareness of the shark's role in the marine ecosystem and the rapid rate of extinction because of the demand for shark fin soup may be the best hope for the shark, which has inhabited the planet for 400 million years.

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