Feb 14, 2009

VIRGIN-BIRTH SHARKS AND FIN-SOUPING IN PALAU

Rock Islands, Micronesia – We slip through a tidal tunnel, then weave deeper into the lagoonlets. Finally Paddle Palau's Ron stops short. "Shhhhh," he says. "This is a shark nursery. We could see pups here."

Science still has much to learn about these predators. No one's quite sure how they sleep, for example. Ram-ventilators – who breathe by forcing oxygen-rich water over their mouths and gills – may be able to swim while unconscious. And sharks' breeding patterns don't argue strongly for intelligent design either. Babies are born live, hatched from an egg or via a weird combo-deal. In 2001, a Nebraska-zoo hammerhead even reproduced asexually, as the New Scientist noted. Then last year, Tidbit – a Virginia Aquarium blacktip – fertilized her own egg, but died before carrying the baby to term.

A pup of the same species flashes under my boat in Palau, then sweeps around the bowl of the bay, fleeing our kayaks' shadows. Though viviparous – live-birthed – this youngster never knew its mother. From day one, he's been a self-sufficient eating machine.

He's also born out of season. The blacktips (carcharhinus limbatus) pup here in autumn and summer, not early spring. Ron says: "every June, I take my son in there and we have 20 baby sharks swimming around our kayak."

That has to be the height of cool in a four-year-old's world ... I have 29 years on the kid and I nearly roll my boat, bouncing around for a glimpse.

Despite all the sweet, fubsy, pre-school-field-trip vibes, this little shark's threatened. People eat blacktips and also skin them for leather. Here the Taiwanese long-liners "accidentally" hook sharks and then harvest them for fin soup, which certain cultures prize, especially in East Asia. That region's expanding middle-class has tripled the demand in the last few decades. And not all shark populations can take the strain: some are down 80-90%, thanks, in part, to this trend.

Ron fights back. The marine biologist's even scaled the massive factory-ships, pirate-style, and stolen the meat drying on the prows. The Discovery Channel chronicled raids made by Palauan guides and divemasters in Sharks in Peril.

In 2003, the republic banned the harvesting of sharks, even as by-catch. After all, the country relies heavily on tourism. No point over-fishing your charismatic megafauna, especially when the species in question are also pokey-libidoed, apex predators. Mamma blacktips, for example, carry their young for 10–12 months... They're not bunnies in breeding-speed nor temperament.

But they're in boiling-hot water nonetheless. The ban's now up for reconsideration (legislation SB8-44 and SB8-50, April 2009).

Learn more about the "eco-catastrophe" of shark fin soup via CNN, SF Gate and The New York Times. Or run out and buy the award-larded documentary Sharkwater, released this April. I certainly plan to.

Riled up about throwing away 90% of an animal for a tasteless, status-boosting, hyper-expensive broth? Petition here.

Photo by Oliver Roux (otolithe), licensed through Creative Commons.

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