Feeding Frenzy: Why is it still acceptable to eat

the endangered large predators of the sea?


May 11, 2007

By George Monbiot


Dedicated to Ransom A. Myers, who died on March 27th.


If these animals lived on land there would be a

global outcry. But the great beasts roaming the

savannahs of the open seas summon no such

support. Big sharks, giant tuna, marlin and

swordfish should have the conservation status of

the giant panda or the snow leopard. Yet still we

believe it is acceptable for fishmongers to sell

them and celebrity chefs to teach us how to cook



A study in this week's edition of Science reveals

the disastrous collapse of the ocean's megafauna.

The great sharks are now wobbling on the edge of

extinction. Since 1972 the number of blacktip

sharks has fallen by 93%, tiger sharks by 97% and

bull sharks, dusky sharks and smooth hammerheads

by 99%(1). Just about every population of major

predators is now in freefall. Another paper,

published in Nature four years ago, shows that

over 90% of large predatory fishes throughout the

global oceans have gone(2).


You respond with horror when you hear of Chinese

feasts of bear paws and tiger meat. But these are

no different, as far as conservation is

concerned, from eating shark's fin soup or

swordfish or steaks from rare species of tuna.

One practice is considered barbaric in Europe and

North America. The other is promoted in

restaurant reviews and recipes in the colour

supplements of respectable newspapers.


In terms of its impact on both ecology and animal

welfare, shark fishing could be the planet's most

brutal industry. While some sharks are taken

whole, around 70 million are caught every year

for their fins(3). In many cases the fins are cut

off and the shark is dumped, alive, back into the

sea. It can take several weeks to die. The

longlines and gillnets used to catch them snare

whales, dolphins, turtles and albatrosses. The

new paper shows that shark catching also causes a

cascade of disasters through the foodchain. Since

the large sharks were removed from coastal waters

in the western Atlantic, the rays they preyed on

have multiplied tenfold and have wiped out all

the main commercial species of shellfish(4).


Much of this trade originates in East Asia, where

shark's fin soup - which sells for up to £100 a

bowl - is a sign of great wealth and rank, like

caviar in Europe. The global demand for shark

fins is rising by about 5% a year(5). But if you

believe that this is yet another problem for

which the Chinese can be blamed and the Europeans

absolved, consider this: the world's major

importer (and presumably re-exporter) of sharks

is Spain(6). Its catches have increased nine-fold

since the 1990s(7) and it has resisted - in most

cases successfully - every European and global

effort to conserve its prey.


The Spanish defend their right to kill rare

sharks as fiercely as the Japanese defend their

right to kill rare whales. The fishing industry,

traditionally dominated by Galician fascists,

exerts an extraordinary degree of leverage over

the socialist government. The Spanish government,

in turn, usually gets its way in Europe. The EU,

for example, claims to have banned the finning of

sharks. But the ratio it sets for the weight of

fins to the weight of bodies landed by fishermen

is 5%. As edible fins make up only 2% of the

shark's bodyweight(8), this means that two and

half finless sharks can be returned to the water

for every one that comes ashore. Even this is not

enough for the Spanish, whose MEPs have been

demanding that the percentage is raised(9).


Northern European civilisation doesn't come out

of this very well either. In 2001 the British

government promised to protect a critically

endangered species called the angel shark, whose

population in British waters was collapsing. It

ducked and dithered until there was no longer a

problem: the shark is now extinct in the North



Why do we find it so hard to stand up to

fishermen? This tiny industrial lobby seems to

have governments in the palm of its hand. Every

year, the European Union sets catch limits for

all species way above the levels its scientists

recommend. Governments know that they are

allowing the fishing industry to destroy itself

and to destroy the ecosystem on which it depends.

But nothing is sacred, as long as it is

underwater. In November the United Nations failed

even to produce a resolution urging a halt to

trawling on the sea mounts at the bottom of the

ocean. These ecosystems, which are only just

beginning to be explored, harbour great forests

of deepwater corals and sponges, in which

thousands of unearthly species hide. But we can't

summon the will to stop the handful of boats that

are ripping them to shreds.


The power of the fishermen's lobby explains the

lack of protection for marine predators. Though

fish species far outnumber mammal species, the

Convention on International Trade in Endangered

Species protects 654 kinds of mammal and just 77

kinds of fish. Trade in only 9 of these is

subject to a complete ban(11).


The rules that do get passed are ignored by both

fishermen and governments. On Sunday I stood with

a fisheries manager on the banks of a famous sea

trout river in Wales. Perhaps I should say a

famous former sea trout river in Wales. For the

past four years, scarcely any fish - sea trout or

salmon - have appeared. He was not sure why, but

he told me that trawlers in the Irish Sea land

boxes of what appear to be bass; hidden under the

top layer are salmon and sea trout. No one seems

to care enough to stop them: government

monitoring appears to be non-existent. The

pressure group Oceana walks into European ports

whenever there's a public holiday and finds

hundreds of miles of illegal drift nets stowed on

the boats(12,13,14). Where are the official



Of course, governments plead poverty. Which makes

you wonder why they decided last year to allocate

?3.8 billion to the destruction of the marine

environment. This is what you and I are now

paying in subsidies to keep the ocean wreckers

afloat. The money buys new engines, and boats for

young fishermen hoping to expand their

business(15). For the same cost you could put a

permanent inspector on every large fishing vessel

in European waters.


If we don't act, we know what will happen.

Another paper published in Science suggests that

on current trends we'll see the global collapse

of all the species currently caught by commercial

fishermen by 2048. Yet, if we catch the

ecosystems in time - with temporary fishing bans

and the creation of large marine reserves - they

can recover with remarkable speed(16). I hope

British ministers, now drafting a new marine

bill, have read this study.


But beyond a certain point the collapse is likely

to be permanent. Off the coast of Namibia, where

the fishery has crashed as a result of

over-harvesting, we have a glimpse of the future.

A paper in Current Biology reports that the

ecosystem is approaching a "trophic

dead-end"(17). As the fish have been mopped up

they have been replaced by jellyfish, which now

outweigh them by three to one. The jellyfish eat

the eggs and larvae of the fish, so the switch is

probably irreversible. We have entered, the paper

tells us, the "era of jellyfish ascendancy".


It's a good symbol. The jellyfish represents the

collapse of the ecosystem and the spinelessness

of the people charged with protecting it.






1. Ransom A. Myers et al, 30th March 2007.

Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory

Sharks from a Coastal Ocean. Science Vol 315 no.

5820, pp. 1846 - 1850. DOI:



2. Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, 15th May 2003.

Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish



Nature 423, pp280-283, doi:10.1038/nature01610.


3. Shelley C. Clarke et al, October 2006. Global

Estimates of Shark Catches using Trade Records

from Commercial Markets. Ecology Letters Vol 9

no. 10, pp1115-26.


4. Ransom A. Myers et al, ibid.


5. Francesca Colombo, 12th March 2007. Dangerous

Waters - Even for Sharks. Inter Press Service

News Agency.




6. Oceana, 24th September 2006. Conservationists

rally MEPs to make, not break EU ban on shark

finning. Press release.


7. Oceana, 5th December 2006. Oceana requests

explanations from the spanish socialist and

popular parties regarding their efforts to

increase shark captures. Press release.


8. Oceana, 24th September 2006, ibid.


9. Oceana, 23rd August 2006. Sharks threatened by

European Parliament finning report. Press release.


10. Peter Popham, 9th March 2007. Sharks hunted

to extinction in the Mediterranean. The






12. Oceana, 29th June 2006. Oceana investigators

uncover scandalous fishing practices: a large

fleet of illegal driftnetters are fishing out of

Sicilian and Calabrian ports. Press release.


13. Oceana, 4th August 2006. Oceana investigates

french ports in the Mediterranean to uncover an

illegal fleet of driftnetters. Press release.


14. Oceana, 8th November 2006. Oceana presents

evidence in an international meeting of

mediterranean countries that Italy and France are

using illegal driftnets. Press release.


15. Council Of The European Union, 19 June 2006.

2739th Council Meeting: Agriculture and




16. Boris Worm, 3rd November 2006. Impacts of

Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services.

Science Vol. 314, pp787-790. DOI:



17. Christopher P. Lynam, 11th July 2006.

Jellyfish overtake fish in a heavily fished

ecosystem. Current Biology Vol. 16 No. 13,



Published in the Guardian 3rd April 2007.


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