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Man Bites Shark: Demand for Delicacy Draws Ire

Environmentalists say practice of killing sharks for fins is hurting population.

When the fishing boats come into Kewalo's Basin in Honolulu with shark fins hanging from their rigging, a feeding frenzy erupts on the docks. Men bearing thick wads of cash jostle to purchase the fins to sell in Asian markets.

In the past five years, the shark-fin catch in Hawaiian waters has grown astronomically, bringing protests from environmentalists, who say finning is decimating the shark population.

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A much-sought delicacy among Asians, the fins garner $25 per pound on the docks and as much as 10 times that amount in Asia.

Prosperity in the Far East during the early 1990s fueled a boom in demand that has doubled the price of shark fins since 1991, according the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council (WPFMC).

The total shark catch reported in Hawaii jumped from 200,000 pounds in 1991 to 4.5 million pounds in 1996.

Officials believe 99 percent of these sharks were taken only for their fins, with the rest of the animal discarded at sea.

Because shark fins are usually paid for in cash and transactions are sometimes off the books, putting actual numbers on the number of fins sold is difficult. But the WPFMC's Paul Dalzell says the fin trade in Hawaii is probably worth several million dollars annually.

Call for action

The growth of shark finning in US territorial waters has outraged environmental groups. They claim that the US government has not provided consistent guidelines for shark management. On the Atlantic Coast, there are strict quotas, and finning is banned to allow decimated shark fisheries to recover. That is not the case in Pacific territorial waters.

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"The government fishery managers don't seem concerned because they have no evidence of population decline," says Sonja Fordham, a marine policy expert with the Center for Marine Conservation, who calls the practice "cruel and wasteful."

Officials from the WPFMC and the US National Marine Fisheries Service say they are concerned about shark finning. "We think there should be a change in policy. We feel there is a wastage problem," says Bill Hogarth, the NMFS Southwest region administrator.

Mr. Hogarth and other NMFS officials are currently examining how to change their shark fisheries policies in the Pacific.

The change could take the form of a quota system or a total ban on shark finning in US Pacific territorial waters.

But despite the outcry, Hogarth and others say evidence of a major shark decline in the Pacific is still inconclusive.

Gathering accurate information on shark populations and the effects of shark finning in US Western Pacific territorial waters alone is a difficult task.

Sharks tough to count

The Hawaiian Islands and the waters around them cover thousands of square miles, not to mention Guam, Saipan, and other US protectorates.

Sharks' propensity to travel long distances - animals tagged in California have been spotted in Australia - makes pinning down the population even more difficult.

Environmentalists say that when evidence of a decline is spotted, it will already be too late. Shark fisheries are particularly difficult to restore due to the animals' low reproductive rates and late development.

Environmentalists propose drastic cuts in world fishing fleets - something that WPFMC's Mr. Dalzell says has been discussed by US officials for Hawaiian waters.

"The sharks are not what they are out there for. They are bycatch for other fisheries, like yellowfin tuna and swordfish. So you have to ratchet down the other fisheries to reduce shark catches," says Earth Island Institute's Mark Palmer.

"It's likely that once the Pacific shark fishery collapses, it will be very hard to bring [the population] back."

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