Shark finning draws particular ire from conservationists.
As it should.
Shark finning is the practice of catching sharks solely for their fins, which are used to make soup with imagined healing properties. Fishermen chop the fins off living sharks, only to toss the bleeding and helpless fish back into the sea.
It’s an unimaginably cruel and wasteful activity that also depletes the ocean of one of its most important predators.
If I ask you to imagine the person who cuts fins off live sharks for a living I bet your mind ventures into dark territory. You’re picturing a brutish, sadistic man, someone oblivious to the suffering of other creatures. You might go so far as to call such a man evil.
You’d be wrong.
Meeting the Shark Finner
I recently met a former shark finner, not on a fishing boat, but in the office of a conservation organization.
On this particular day, I met with staff from the Micronesia Conservation Trust, a leader in establishing marine protected areas—areas where local communities agreed to protect from fishing, providing a refuge for ocean life and a “bank” to replenish fisheries.
The protected areas have proven spectacularly successful around Micronesia, and as I talked to staff from the local conservation organization, I felt inspired by their hard work and results.
I spoke with a young man named Roseo, and happened to ask how he became a conservationist. He looked at me sheepishly and paused before responding.
“I began my career working on shark finning boats,” he said. “I was the one who cut the fins off the sharks.”
A Life-Changing Experience
I had a difficult time picturing this soft-spoken, gentle and passionate conservationist standing on deck with a bloody machete.
At age nineteen, a fishing company offered Roseo a scholarship to serve as a trainee on a Japanese fishing boat. It seemed like an opportunity to begin a career. Within a month, he began chopping fins.
“If I had said no, I would have ended up in the ocean,” he said, matter of fact. “The work was tough. It was a very harsh life. Sometimes the Micronesians on the boat were treated little better than the sharks. After a while, though, I got used to it.”
There was little opportunity for introspection, and he believed he was helping his country develop its fisheries.
“We didn’t know the value of sharks; we didn’t know how they fit into the ecosystem,” he said.
Eventually, Roseo realized he could have a better life pursuing a college degree.
“It was an important experience for me. I don’t think I would be here, working to conserve our marine life and coral reefs, if I hadn’t been on that ship,” he said. “I feel bad about what I did. But I still understand why young men might sign up to work on a shark finning boat.”
Most conservationists don’t understand that. Too often, we seek easy villains. Shark finners—and rhino poachers, seal clubbers, whalers and illegal loggers—make convenient bad guys.
The problem is, this worldview doesn’t help sharks or rhinos or orangutans.
Oftentimes, those working such jobs are not violent or uncaring people. For many reasons, they’re doing what they feel they have to do to survive, to make a better life for themselves and their families.
It’s too easy for environmentalists—so often living lives of comfort and ease—to direct their rage at these people working in distant lands.
It’s much more difficult to look to ourselves and see how we too, in myriad ways large and small, contribute to the destruction of wildlife and wild places.
Conservation is not about heroes and villains.
Let’s extend empathy not only to sharks, but also the shark finners.
You can help: Shark finning is a market-driven business. Some restaurants and supermarkets still carry shark meat, and even shark fins. Please ask them to stop carrying this unsustainable fish source, and don’t support establishments that do. By doing so, you not only help sharks, but you help ensure young men like Roseo don’t end up forced to work in this cruel business.
(Image: A Caribbean Reef Shark patrols the water column among horse eye jacks. Image credit: © Jeff Yonover)