The first shark I ever saw was about 25 feet long – nearly as long as the research boat I was on – and it repeatedly cruised back and forth under and around us as we drifted in Cape Cod Bay. Then it glided to the surface and floated next to us, unmoving, its giant fin jutting above the water line. It was a basking shark, the second largest shark on Earth, and I quickly put on my wetsuit to join a film crew in the water with it. But it disappeared before I was ready.
I haven’t seen many sharks in the wild since that day, but I’m often reminded of that shark’s massive fin, perhaps 2 feet tall, and how the animal seemed to have no fear of us. Sadly, that giant fin and the shark’s lack of fear – along with the great demand in China for shark fin soup – has put basking sharks and many other shark species at great risk.
Brad Wetherbee, a shark researcher at the University of Rhode Island, said about 70 million sharks die each year from having their fins sliced off to meet the demand for shark fin soup. The reportedly tasteless delicacy is served primarily at weddings and other celebrations in China and at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“It’s the biggest issue in the world that sharks face,” Wetherbee said. “If you could do away with one thing to benefit sharks, it would be finning.”
Slicing off a shark’s fins causes the animal to die a slow and cruel death. Wetherbee likened it to trying to fly a plane without wings. The sharks just sink to the bottom, unable to swim, and die.
So it was heartening to learn last month that Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a bill into law that makes it a crime to own or sell shark fins in Rhode Island, unless it is for use in scientific research. It makes the Ocean State the 11th state in the nation to ban the trade in shark fins. While there isn’t believed to be much of a market for shark fins in Rhode Island, the law is useful in raising awareness of the practice of shark finning and the ecological damage it does.
Basking sharks have no teeth and feed exclusively on tiny plankton, which is why some biologists call them whales in shark’s clothing – they eat what most of the large whales eat. It’s also why I felt comfortable getting in the water with one. They are no threat to humans or almost any other creature. Yet they are targeted by some fishermen because just one of their massive fins can sell for tens of thousands of dollars in China.
The depletion of global shark populations because of finning is causing a ripple effect – what scientists call a trophic cascade – that is affecting numerous other species, from shellfish and corals to sea turtles and commercially important fish. So reducing the slaughter of sharks for their fins will not only benefit the sharks, but many other marine creatures as well.
Wetherbee said Rhode Island’s ban on the sale of shark fins probably won’t reduce shark mortality a great deal. “We’re just a tiny state, but we want to be on the right side of this issue and make a statement about it. So in that respect it’s a good move for Rhode Island.”