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A photo of people eating a shark is upsetting activists for some silly reason

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Photo via activist Andy Gray on Facebook, original photographer unknown

Photo via activist Andy Gray on Facebook, original photographer unknown

A photo of a single thresher shark being served for dinner at a resort is making the rounds among shark conservation activists. The photo, shown on the right, has been shared more than 12,000 times. A petition written in response to the image  (in French) has over 1,000 signatures. The story has even made it into the mainstream media. The original caption refers to this scene as “shameful and disgraceful”, while follow-up comments refer to it as “shocking,” “sickening,” “disgusting,” “beyond words,” “shameful,” and “barbaric.”  12,000 shares and a 1,000 signature petition is significantly more outrage than I’ve ever seen for any issue involving a single individual shark. Why, exactly, are activists so upset about it?

It can’t simply be reaction to the death of a single shark. If you believe that no sharks should be eaten ever (or that no animals should be eaten ever), that’s a perfectly valid belief system. You should be (and likely are) aware, however, that the overwhelming majority of the world, including almost all governments, the majority of the scientific community, and many NGOs, completely disagree with you. People have encountered photos of individual sharks being killed before, or pictures of sharks on a menu or for sale in grocery stores, and not reacted this strongly.

It likely isn’t the species of shark in question, either. This shark is either a pelagic thresher or a common thresher, and while both are considered Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List, they’re common components of shark fisheries. Thresher fisheries in U.S. waters are considered well managed (and that population is only “Near-Threatened”). Some of the comments say that “sharks are an endangered species,” which is nonsense, as there are over 500 species of sharks and most are not even Threatened. Regardless, a single individual animal doesn’t impact the population in any significant way.

At least part of the reason for the visceral reaction comes from the way that the shark is being presented (and served to diners at the resort).  The photo caption notes that  next to the whole shark there are “diners carving their own shark steak and having it cooked in front of them.” That appears to be the source of the outrage, but that’s silly. While many Westerners are used to getting their food on a plate or processed and individually wrapped, many cultures around the world serve a whole animal. There is value in consumers knowing where their food comes from instead of being desensitized to the process of food production. You’d be hard pressed in many countries to order fish at a restaurant and get a fillet instead of the whole fish, eyes and all. At markets in some countries, you buy a whole chicken, not sliced and deboned chicken breasts.  Even in the U.S., a rotisserie chicken, luau pig, or Brazilian steakhouse is basically the same presentation as this thresher shark. We even celebrated the Southern Fried Scientist’s Ph.D. defense with a pig pickin':

Other than removing the head and viscera, this is a whole pig on the grill. I was, obviously, extremely excited by the process, and for good reason- it was delicious.

Other than removing the head and viscera, this is a whole pig on the grill. I was, obviously, extremely excited by the process, and for good reason- it was delicious.

Moreover, serving a whole shark represents what we call “full utilization.” In other words, this shark was not killed just for its fins, people ate it. This is one of the main principles of sustainable shark fisheries. If you’re opposed to finning but not shark fishing in general, this photo represents the goal, particularly if it was caught according to enforced science-based catch limits (which we have no idea of from the photo alone.) If you’re concerned about overfishing of sharks in general but only ever talk about finning, this is a great example of why you need to learn some basic terminology. This shark was unequivocally NOT finned, a statement which would be equally true even if the fins weren’t present at the time that the buffet was served.

Overfishing of many species of sharks represents a big problem, and consumption of shark meat is obviously a component of that problem. However, a single individual shark being fully utilized at a resort (a practice the resort claims stopped last year) is not a major problem.  People eating a single shark is not sickening or shocking, but the response from some members of the shark activist community has certainly been. At worst this is worthy of a heavy sigh and a sad shaking of the head, not sending so many angry and uninformed comments that a hotel chain is forced to shut down their Facebook page.

Sharks are often referred to as “the wolves of the sea” because of their ecological role. I’d refer certain shark activists to a famous fable about a boy and his interactions with a wolf.

UPDATE: Comments are now closed on this post. Please see my follow-up post.