Shark Finning: How Fear Turned Into Fascination

Dr. Demian Chapman showing the fin of an endangered shark species to the large audience that gathered at Steven Reiner's Science On Tap.
Dr. Demian Chapman showing the fin of an endangered shark species to the large audience that gathered at Steven Reiner’s Science On Tap.

Dr. Demian Chapman is obsessed with sharks.

For more than 20 years he has dedicated his career to these creatures that he was once afraid of, and sees sharks not as threats, but as a species in danger of extinction due to overfishing because of the high demand for shark fins. Earlier tonight, Chapman shared his experiences of working with sharks and trying to balance their population in the ocean at a Science on Tap event, for which he was the featured speaker.

Chapman is an assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and an internationally recognized shark expert, born and raised in New Zealand, where he grew up on the beach in fear of the Great Whites like everyone else around him. Although shark attacks are unlikely, Chapman says, people perceive them as monsters. Very few people know that out of 500 shark species, two thirds are only one meter long as oppose to the Great Whites that can grow up to 6.5 meters in length. And even fewer people know that their risk of being killed by a shark is practically nonexistent.

There is a  “one in 63 chance of dying from the flu and a one in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark during one’s lifetime,”  according to National Geographic data report.

“I’ve swam with them, I’ve tagged them, I’ve been bitten three times like an idiot,” said Chapman. “They are all small. The worst pathetic guys that you’ve ever seen. My dog bites guys worse than them.”

His particular focus is on the international dried shark fin trade and how shark reproduction and movements impact population dynamics and genetic diversity.

“Dr. Chapman knows more about the sharks than just about anyone out of the water,” said Steven Reiner, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at Stony Brook University and the host of the Science on Tap event, which was held in the open bar of the Stony Brook Yacht Club.

And in Chapman’s opinion, sharks are vanishing because as the Chinese economy has expanded, Chinese residents have more disposable income to spend on the $100 per bowl shark fin soup that they love. While it used to be served to the emperors, today people want to show to everyone that they are well off, Chapman said, and that they can serve this delicacy for special occasions as a sign of generosity.

“For a lot of species,” says Dr. Chapman, “the fin trade is the key driver of mortality.”

Approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year, and the value of the shark trade annually is $1billion, Chapman said.

Although Chinese are consuming them, more than 100 nations are involved in catching them. Indonesia is the leader in this industry, Chapman said.

Throughout the years, five species of sharks were traded in large volumes and are now especially vulnerable: oceanic white-tip, porbeagle and three species of hammerhead shark. They are now protected by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

To get them recognized by the CITES was a challenge. But Chapman and his wife, Dr. Deborah Abercrombie, also a marine biologist and shark expert, succeeded by creating an identification guide for the fins of the protected species. Now ordinary citizens can participate in the process by learning how to recognize the fins of the endangered species and help them to recover.

“You can show that a species needs protection using science, but you have to get two-thirds of the countries to vote in favor,” says Chapman. “Imagine trying to elect a president in the Unites States with a two-thirds majority—it would be impossible.”

Shark fins that are used to make the expensive $100 bowl of soup in China.
Shark fins that are used to make the expensive $100 bowl of soup in China.

Sharks are an important factor in the balance of the ocean will topple because they act as scavengers and act as food sources for other sharks and killer whales, according to ‘Without Me There Is No You’ blog. They also maintain species diversity and act as crowd control to help maintain the balance of the ecosystem.

“I am really bothered that sharks are disappearing in large numbers,” said Thomas W. White, professor of physiology at Stony Brook University. “We kill a lot of things to eat them, but sharks are just very interesting animals.”

Another issue that Chapman raised during the event was the emergence of technology and what does it mean for the underwater animals. With GPS and weather forecasting,  it is so easy for fishermen to catch fish basically on every spot on Earth, leaving the fish no place to hide.

“Technology has been the enemy of the fish,” he said. “With technology, we can fish them at 3,000 and 4,000 feet.”


Guests are examining the expensive shark fins.
Guests are examining the expensive shark fins.

“I enjoyed this a lot,” said Evonne Kaplan-Liss, one of the Science on Tap guests. “I would never eat shark soup.”


Steven Reiner and Dr. Chapman
Steven Reiner and Dr. Chapman

“There is so much more to know and learn about – so many things that you take for granted,” Reiner said after the event.”When you hear it from somebody who has such deep knowledge, it is really extraordinary, and he brought this to life.”


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