In December 2011, I was working on the Whitsunday Islands, off the coast of Queensland, tagging tiger sharks and collecting footage of rays in the Great Barrier Reef. After a tiresome day at sea, my research team and I stopped for a bite to eat at a bustling fish and chip shop.
Nearby, two fishermen—a father and son tandem—were waiting for their meal. Recalling the day’s catch, the son motioned impressively with his arms to measure a particularly large shark. “At least nine foot,” said the son. “It was beautiful.” His father raised a thoughtful eyebrow, and turned to face the water beside them. “Sharks have it pretty rough out there,” he began. “People hate them, and other people eat them. They cut off their fins and cook them for weddings in China.”
Shark meat’s ambiguous appearance is manipulated and covertly sold under aliases, including salmon, rockfish, whiting, cod, haddock, grayfish, lemon fish, cape steak, sea ham, rigg, sokomoro, ocean fillet, surimi or huss.
"I don’t know how anyone could be part of something like that,” he continued. "I certainly couldn’t." His son nodded in agreement, and both men turned politely to a waitress who arrived with their food. The waitress paused for a moment, before checking the receipt and asked, “So which one of you guys ordered the flake?”
Flake Is Actually Finned Shark
When we think of shark fin soup from a Western or European perspective, we picture thousands of sharks’ fins laid out to dry on the streets of Hong Kong. We think of major consumer nations, like Taiwan and Malaysia. We think of the annual systematic capture and slaughter of more than 40 million sharks to sustain the trade.
There’s a presumption that as Westerners and Europeans, we do not eat shark fins; that we don’t profit from shark fin fisheries; and that we certainly do not fund it with our own consumer dollars.
We’re from the “non-guilty” nations—Australia, Canada and the United States, just to name a few—and our ethical compass is as clear as a line we’d draw in the sand.
Problem is, to sharks that line is getting blurry.
Sharks are swimming on a knife’s edge all over the world, despite the overwhelming support for bans on shark fin fisheries. In a 2011 poll conducted by Wild Aid and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 76 percent of Californians revealed their opposition to shark finning, and in a 2012 poll published on Care2, 86 percent of international voters agreed the practice was cruel and unnecessary.
However, information provided by the International Department of Fisheries demonstrated that Western and European flake consumption has increased by approximately 30 percent since 2001.
The problem? Flake is shark. Finned shark. And you’re eating it too.
Shark Finning: It’s Happening In Your Very Own Backyard
Every year, “non-guilty” nations play host to local, foreign and industrialized shark finning vessels that supply the major consumer nations with fins. As of 2011, more than 100 countries were active in the high-profit business of trading in shark fins. Most, like Australia and the United States, are exporters of fins, while the major consumer nations are China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand.
At least one Word Heritage Site and two marine reserves are known shark finning hot spots, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos responsible for the removal of more than 11,000 sharks for their fins in the year 2000 alone. A number of unauthorized finning vessels have been caught removing sharks fins in the Cocos Islands, Canada, the Marshall Islands and the United States.
After finning, drying and processing, fins are exported to the consumer nations from fisheries within the non-consumer nations. In most instances, vessels, following federal fisheries regulations, bring shark carcasses back to shore in a process called “landing,” and sell off the remainder of the shark cheaply as byproduct to local seafood vendors and restaurants.
In 2012, south Australian seafood restaurant owner Jared Leow stated his shark products came from a supplier who was one of hundreds that did not discard shark carcasses at sea, but instead sold the remainder of the animal to willing buyers after exporting the fins.
In restaurants like Leow’s and in broader fish markets and take-away stores, shark meat is used to make up shortages of similar items, including swordfish and wild salmon. However, in most cases, shark meat’s ambiguous appearance is manipulated and covertly sold under aliases, including salmon, rockfish, whiting, cod, haddock, grayfish, lemon fish, cape steak, sea ham, rigg, sokomoro, ocean fillet, surimi or huss.
The Solution Is Up to You, the Consumer
Accidental or purposeful purchase of shark produce does little to balance the shark finning industry, despite small claims of industry sustainability. And although a great number of sharks are “landed” and sold as bargain meat, millions more are finned in unregulated fisheries as part of the same trade, where they are then thrown back into the water and left to suffocate on the ocean floor.
Consumer mediation is of optimum necessity, and in order to succeed in shark conservation, we must first adopt the ethical strictness of which we expect our major consumer nations to abide by.
Supporting proposed legislation for strict bans on the trade in shark fins and shark parts will greatly decrease the authorized and unauthorized prevalence of flake (and its many aliases) in our seafood industries, and will help safeguard the conservation status of the ocean’s most important apex predator.
You can join the fight for sharks with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its associated conservation initiatives, Shark Angels, Fin Free and United Conservationists.
Be honest, have you ever eaten flake? If so, did you know it was actually finned shark?
Elissa Sursara is an Australian environmental conservationist, filmmaker and wildlife expert working on behalf of endangered species, threatened habitats and animals in crisis. She is a celebrity ambassador for the WWF, Earth Hour and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. @ElissaSursara