US Shark Fin Soup Appalling and Widespread

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Freshly cut dorsal fin of Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna lewini).
Jeffrey L. Rotman, Getty

Would you eat tiger soup? Of course not. It's a species facing extinction. But if you eat shark fin soup, you could hasten the demise of animals facing a similar plight, because nearly a third of all shark species are in peril.

I am a shark attack survivor, but I appreciate the importance of these predators for the health of the ocean. I have dedicated my life to helping them. Recently, I teamed with some fellow shark attack survivors, my colleagues at the Pew Environment Group, and researchers from Stony Brook University in New York to collect and genetically test samples of shark fin soup across the United States.

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We gathered 51 samples from restaurants in 14 cities and found one made from the fin of a scalloped hammerhead, which is endangered. We discovered samples containing fin of vulnerable and near-threatened species, including bull, smooth hammerhead, school, spiny dogfish and copper sharks. And there were even a few bowls in which the DNA testing revealed no shark at all.

This is the first time shark fin soup has been tested in a large nationwide sampling. The results demonstrate some crucial points.

First, people consuming shark fin soup do not know what they are eating. Is it a commonly found species, one that is threatened or endangered or something entirely different?

Second, the findings illustrate the need for shark fishing limits. There are so few now that, in most places on the high seas, you can catch as many as you want. Up to 73 million are killed each year for their fins. As top predators, these animals keep the food chain balanced, yet we are risking the health of the ocean for bowls of soup — a delicacy in some cultures.

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We wanted to bring attention to this problem when we and other volunteers collected soup samples this spring. The findings for each city were surprising. (See them here)

Of the 51 samples, 32 yielded identifiable results. Extracting DNA was challenging because the fins had been dried, stored, chemically treated, and cooked. Dr. Demian Chapman of Stony Brook's Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, worked with the Pritzker Laboratory at the Field Museum in Chicago to modify existing DNA sequencing techniques to identify the fin fragments.

The study will be featured in a new Shark Week show on Discovery, "Shark Fight," airing Aug. 15 at 9 p.m. The program is about our group of survivors and the conservation work we do. We have been promoting measures to save sharks since 2009, when we decided to join forces.

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Although many of us have lost arms and legs (my Achilles tendon was severed), we chose to use our unique perspective to become vocal advocates for these animals.

Please watch the show and help us save sharks! Learn more here: PewEnvironment.org/Sharks.

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