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. 

  1. Maybe the reason for the outrage is that so many areas in the sea bed are almost dead. Some areas suffer greatly because there are no sharks left. If there are no sharks, the balance is not there any more.

  2. I am Vegetarian but I have seen Whole Pigs on a spit and a Whole Cattle Beast on a Bar B Que as well as whole fish being cooked. so as this is not a shark being taken just for it’s fins.i have no problem with a Whole shark being eaten…Dolphins are a Different story.

    • Why are dolphins different? I guess you don’t have a problem with toxic mercury poisoning because BOTH the EPA AND EPA said do not eat sharks because of the high levels of mercury. Also killing a animal that is Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List how is that okay?

  3. I don’t think you understand why people could find this upsetting. You see only your perspectives, but fail to see the other sides and simply feel good to summarily dismiss all other perspectives.

    If this is sustainable fishing, why is this species threatened? Also, if they plan to use all of the shark, why is it sitting out without cooling to prevent spoiling? You really think this entire shark will be used? No, most of it will spoil due to the exposure to high temperatures and improper serving. Anyone who knows anything about seafood, should understand that.

    This is a centerpiece with an option for consumption. Nothing more. It’s inherently unhealthy due to preparation and the type of species. It’s still an apex predator that has a high likelihood of having biomagnified toxins within it. As any marine biologist would tell you, we need to be eating lower on the food web rather than higher (if you doubt that, watch “The End of the Line” a few more times until it sinks in).

    As for most ‘species of shark not being threatened’; you need to back that up with some data rather than your opinion. “Most” means more than 50% of species and we simply do not have that population information to make that claim either way, so that was sloppy of you (for a scientist). In regards to population, its that component that determines abundance and not a worldwide estimate. Just as we regulate other species by region, you cannot say a species is not threatened if we wipe out the north Atlantic population simply because there’s a healthy Pacific stock.

    Going back to the original post, you talk about “full utilization” being ideal if they are to be taken at all…where do you see utilization of the skin here?…the fins?…the eyes?…etc? This is not apparent from a single picture or the relevant article. You’re making a dangerous assumption from no context.

    Its easy to jump on people’s outrage as being irrational, but you’ve made equally irrational comments in your rebuttal. Not even logic can support this kind of “display” of a thresher shark as being anything but wasteful. Even if this thresher were then ground up for ‘dog food’, it’s still spoiled from the preparation here. There is no defending that. I think we both know how this scene would end, with a dump in the garbage of a very large proportion of this fish.

    Let people get uproarious about this. It progresses the cause for more strict fishing and increases awareness. What harm does it do to you…or (as you claim of others) is your objection to their concern merely “silly”.

    • “. It progresses the cause for more strict fishing and increases awareness. What harm does it do to you”

      It does not progress any cause whatsoever. It makes people think that conservation activists are extremists.

      I haven’t seen anywhere near this level of enthusiasm from activists for actual conservation policy.

  4. Indeed, in other countries it is not that unusual to select a live animal to be dispatched for your meal. That way you get to be familiar with its health. Not all places have the same inspection processes that we in the US take for granted. We’ve become separated from food production and our plates. Shoot, I’ve run into adults who can’t identify the type of plant tomatoes come from in the US.

  5. Hey David, I expect you to get bombarded with comments on this one. I think you could have spent some more time exploring why people were so angry over this photo when similar photos of hundreds of sharks in Kesennuma or Taiwan have not resulted in such shock. To me, the way this photo was shot evokes images of torture or war — and that eye is spooky. Especially with his mouth open like that. Simply dismissing everyone as stupid doesn’t get to the heart of the outrage.

    • I don’t think they’re stupid. I think they’re misinformed.

      “exploring why people were so angry over this photo when similar photos of hundreds of sharks in Kesennuma or Taiwan have not resulted in such shock”

      I’d love to know the answer to this. But I haven’t got a clue. 1,000 signatures on a digital petition to ban a single hotel from serving food they don’t serve anymore, but less than 50 comments on a petition to list hammerhead sharks under the Endangered Species Act? I’m totally baffled.

  6. As a person touting to be a conservationist and ecologist of marine life, its surprising that your article spins in the opposite direction of any conservation or ecological statements. Our oceans are bieng over fished and over polluted. Your comments are born out of ignorance typically seen in archaic and unevolved carcass eaters mentality.

    • Referring to people with different diets than you (i.e. most of the world) as “archaic and unevolved” is a surefire way to win people to your side.

      I am an ecologist and conservation biologist. Saying “no sharks should be killed ever” is significantly out of mainstream thought in ecology, fisheries management, and conservation. The goals of most scientists and managers (and many NGOs) are to reduce fishing to sustainable levels.

  7. well, I’m not sure what to think, while I’ve never eaten shark before, I can’t say I know whether it is good or not. However, I think that its one thing to choose the shark steak, but another to present it the way it is, I don’t think the head and eyes should still be attached to it if people are going to eat it. If people want to pick their own size meat it should be complete filets behind the scenes and then let people choose their ow portion size from pictures or a display.

    On second hand it’s kind of cool because people can see how much meat a shark has on it for consummation but it could scare little kids though even though parents might use it as a teaching tool…

    I think if people knew how the shark died, it might be one thing, but u have to be careful about near endangered or endangered species being caught for food too many animals in this world will soon no longer exist if people kill them just because they can and don’t use the whole animal for food purposes. I don’t necessarily think eating shark is bad but it can be scary to some to see the whole thing. I think the presentation could be a bit better and more tastefully, I feel bad that an innocent animal had to die to provide food for us as humans, BUT I do have to agree with Angelo here. The thing that scares me about the picture is fact that the shark still has it’s head and those eyes especially with it’s mouth open which are haunting. People fear sharks because they are known to attack people especially great white, tigers and bull sharks to name a few and have killed humans either intentionally or mistaking them for seal a main food source a shark eats. Take the great white for example, first time I saw jaws, I had nightmares and cried for 6 months. I was afraid to even get out of my own bed to pee because I thought it was under my bed waiting to kill me; and something like that does mess with people’s minds which can lead to psychological damage from the fear alone and construe this picture as torture,etc. I would much rather have mine served to me with an option to pick the size I’d like to eat. I think this picture should have been a little more tactfully posted. I would probably freak seeing something like that in person on a table. the first time I ever swam in the ocean I was afraid I’d get eaten by a shark. The way I see this pictures is It’s kind of like slaughtering a child while they are screaming and eventually die with their eyes and mouth wide open and scared shitless. If places would learn to display things a little more tactfully, then there might not be such an uproar. I can see the reason for the uproar, I love animals but this would scare me seeing something like this.Thank god it’s only a picture, it would send my current anxiety through the roof.

    • ” The way I see this pictures is It’s kind of like slaughtering a child while they are screaming and eventually die with their eyes and mouth wide open and scared …If places would learn to display things a little more tactfully, then there might not be such an uproar.”

      Did you see the part about how lots of cultures (and places within the West) serve the entire animal? By “serve tactfully” you mean according to your own cultural norms and not those of the culture serving the food.

    • What the hell man? What if was lighting candles while reading this?! I could light myself on fire while laughing so hard! You, sir, are a liability and I can’t stand for it!

      I’m going to sit down and continue reading the comments now.

  8. You really missed the opportunity to be an educator here. Rather than stepping back and discussing some really important issues regarding food ethics and the value of understanding where our food comes from and how it connects to living things and, as a consequence, how rarely we, as westerners from developed countries, actually come face to face with the faces behind our food; rather than talking about how sharks are normally consumed — as anonymous meat breaded and fried or so processed as to be unidentifiable; rather than take a moment to reflect on how single images can be powerful motivators and galvanize people around an issue; rather than all that, you took the low road, and dismissed uninformed agents’ concerns as silly, trivial, and ignorant.

    You had an opportunity to educate, and instead of taking it, you used it as an excuse to insult people for caring about sharks.

    The ball sails by. Better luck next inning.

    • Good luck with the mercury poisoning! Both the EPA and FDA say that shark meat has toxic levels of mercury. So watch out for •irritability
      •anxiety/nervousness, often with difficulty in breathing
      •restlessness
      •exaggerated response to stimulation
      •fearfulness
      •emotional instability
      -lack of self control
      -fits of anger, with violent, irrational behavior
      •loss of self confidence
      •indecision
      •shyness or timidity, being easily embarrassed
      •loss of memory
      •inability to concentrate
      •lethargy/drowsiness
      •insomnia
      •mental depression, despondency
      •withdrawal
      •suicidal tendencies
      •manic depression

      •numbness and tingling of hands, feet, fingers, toes, or lips
      •muscle weakness progressing to paralysis
      •ataxia
      •tremors/trembling of hands, feet, lips, eyelids or tongue
      •incoordination
      •myoneural transmission failure

    • “Both the EPA and FDA say that shark meat has toxic levels of mercury. ”

      No they have not. You do not get sick from eating shark meat once or a few times. The FDA recommends that pregnant mothers (or people trying to become pregnant) should not eat shark or tuna. Others are fine if they eat it occasionally.

  9. I’m vegan so I’m the one who doesn’t think any animal should be eaten. But like you said ppl are used to it packaged nicely and served with garnish. It is what it is, regardless of how it’s served.

  10. I am so glad somebody said it. Way to go David!

    I worked in animal care for almost ten years and I really am totally tired of this affluent American ignorance running amok.

    The only thing you didn’t touch, I feel, is mis labeling of ocean species which I understand is common and one of the challenges to sustainae fishing. Serving the whole shark not only can testify to its freshness but also proves that it is indeed shark meat.

    After reading the other comments I can tell not everyone is educated on their comments, don’t let them get you down buddy! Also, I’m pretty sure I signed the petition for hammerheads to be listed but I already feel guilty that I may have not been aware of the petition- but it sounds familiar.

  11. This photo is sickening in many ways, but if people want to eat flesh of an animal then it is better that they see the animal they are eating before hand. I am quite sure that if people had to kill their own animals before eating it, there would be many more vegetarians on this earth.

    • “I am quite sure that if people had to kill their own animals before eating it, there would be many more vegetarians on this earth.”

      As a lifelong dedicated carnivore, I completely agree with you. The extent to which people are disconnected from food production is alarming

  12. Excellent Comments David, I LOVED IT! Personally l Do absolutely abhor Finning, there is So much damned wastage, any wonder people are scrounging for food even when it’s right in front of them, however here in Australia yes we do eat shark, it is what it is hon. Hey some people just can’t deal with the reality of what they are eating, well l’m an omnivore and damned proud of it. I swear most people would starve if the world went back to start again and they had to hunt and kill their own food. lol I am also a conservationist in many many ways and Love animals most of the time more than most people. Sure l wouldn’t take just Any shark if l could help it but if l was starving and it was me or him, sorry but grubs up!..:)

  13. While this image is upsetting at first, my second immediate thought was “at least they’re using all of the buffalo”. For me, eating shark would be tantamount to cannibalism (an opinion based entirely on emotion), but if others want to do it, I want them to be responsible and not wasteful.

  14. They are regarded as “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”??!!
    Then why the hell is it allowed to catch them for human consumption?? Are you blind! If they are “near threatened” and the hunting continues, where do you think it will end up? On the endangered list, on the extinction list…
    I don’t care that governments don’t agree with me. I do not agree with YOU!

    We, at the top of the food chain, can’t seem to leave anything in the wild untouched and uneaten. Seriously, draw the line somewhere!!!

    • “If they are “near threatened” and the hunting continues, where do you think it will end up? ”

      If they are continually fished under a well-managed fishery, stocks should not only no longer decline, but improve. We’re seeing this with many other shark fisheries in the U.S.

      Fishing isn’t bad. It’s unregulated overfishing that’s a problem.

  15. There is probably nothing wrong with photo except it is in your face at a time when we are seeing dolphins and whales… and sharks destroyed in horrible fashion.
    Sharks as you would know are important creatures for reef health in that they maintain a ballance.
    Why do you care if a pic such as that one caused the reaction in some people that it did? Do you work in the fishing industry?

    • “Why do you care if a pic such as that one caused the reaction in some people that it did?”

      Because tons of people get all worked up about this, but don’t channel that into anything effective. A petition asking the hotel to stop doing this (which they did already a full year before this photo went viral) got 1,000 signatures. A petition to list hammerhead sharks on the Endangered Species Act got fewer than 50.

      I love the energy from the activism crowd, I’d just like to see it go into something that helps

  16. All 3 tresher shark species are listed vulnerable, you state that one single shark doesn’t make a difference. But I do believe every single shark counts. What should we do : wait until they are really endangered, wait until it is too late ?
    If we all say that one piece of litter we throw on the street doesn’t matter we create a whole pile, the same goes for that one shark, if every hotel says it’s only one …
    But maybe I am not qualified enough to say this, maybe I would have to have a degree in marine biology and not in marketing

    • “You state that one single shark doesn’t make a difference. But I do believe every single shark counts. What should we do : wait until they are really endangered, wait until it is too late ?”

      One shark doesn’t make a difference to the population dynamics of a species, particularly if the hotel stopped serving shark last year (a year before this photo went viral).

      No, you shouldn’t wait until they’re really endangered. You should focus on animals that are endangered or are on their way to becoming endangered, and on solutions that will actually help them.

    • Just on the side : there is a recent picture of an Iberostar hotel that has shark his buffet : Dogfish is after all shark, so when they say they never serve shark they are not correct, they just serve different species and not on the BBQ but on a buffet.
      I do not agree with people writing impolite messages on the FB page of the hotel, I do not believe that that helps. And yes, it is true that other things like the hammerhead proposal didn’t get enough support, I totally agree on that, I just don’t agree on the fact of how you made certain conservationist feel and on the point that one just doesn’t matter : all individual cases combined do add up I think.

  17. We have to learn to tolerate other people’s opinion. Some are offended with something and others are not. But why make them look silly because we think it’s no big deal? I believe that it is OK when somebody does not like to see a suckling pig and others don’t want to see a whole shark on a buffet. We have to get away from demeaning people because they express their personal opinion. It’s a matter of good or bad taste, that’s all. “He who is without sin cast the first stone”.

    • You don’t think that enormous amounts of misdirected time, energy and effort are a problem?

      This got over 12,000 shares. A petition resulting from it got over 1,000 signatures. A recent petition to list hammerhead sharks on the Endangered Species Act got fewer than 50 comments.

    • People are free to express their opinion, as I am free to explain why expressing an opinion in a particular way is demonstrative of the problems within the shark conservation movement.

  18. I am pretty sure here in Oz we eat all manner of shark,but we call it different names ,like ,flake,hake butterfish,is shark in some states.But I do agree,that we in the western world tend to see things thru wat we call civilised eyes,but the facts are that a large majority of the world,do eat things we would rather not see or eat ..To judge others on their source of sustainence is arrogant and patronising.

  19. The question is do we really need to eat sharks or for that matter any threatened species? I am not aware of anyone farming sharks for consumption. In a civilised world people farm the animals they wish to eat and have quotas for fish that are caught for the table. In this way we can, in theory, have sustainable planning for food. Millions of sharks are caught each year for the shark fin soup market and there are various campaigns that are trying to raise awareness of this unsustainable and largely cruel practice and, by public education. They are attempting to get this sort of fishing stopped or at least strictly controlled on a world wide basis and so far have had some success in persuading governments to ensure that fisher men who rely on shark fishing for a living bring in not just the fins but also the carcasses of the de-finned shark. The sort of cavalier attitude shown by David Shiffman to the display and consumption of a shark in such away is a totally negative message which does nothing to help the cause of a developing a better attitude to the protection of threatened species. I am really surprised that any one who purports to be a shark conservationist should be giving out such a vibe. I presume that his barbecued pig was not wild caught or on the threatened list.

    • “. In a civilised world people farm the animals they wish to eat and have quotas for fish that are caught for the table. In this way we can, in theory, have sustainable planning for food”

      Many shark fisheries do have science-based quotas. Including the U.S. thresher fishery.

  20. This photo made me feel sad, but I would feel the same way if it were a dolphin on display like that. For me, it looks somewhat disrespectful to the shark. It is a magnificently beautiful creature and should be respected as such even after death.

    • This is the point I’m trying to make. It is not “disrespectful” to serve an entire animal. It’s often less wasteful, it lets people see where their food comes from, and it’s quite common in many cultures.

  21. I think you are missing the point. Shark fisheries world wide threaten the survival of sharks as a species. I accept that quotas are in place for shark fishing just as there is for other fish in the more enlightened countries of the world. However we must try, as conservationists, to establish a new attitude to sharks as a threatened species and photos such as the one in question do nothing to help the cause. I remember seeing a similar photo some years ago with a turtle being served at a Maldivian tourist restaurant – I don’t think you would say that did a great deal to further the cause of conservation. I have no problem with people eating shark or any other fish from a sustainable source, what I do object to is creating publicity of a negative nature by circulating a picture that seems to endorse the killing of sharks. The conservation movement can do without such negative images in its fight to change attitudes to the unrestrained exploitation of sharks.

  22. The impact this picture has had in terms of motivating people to share comment vs. the low turn out in terms of hammerhead protection comments might be a lesson in what motivates people to get involved in issues.

    A scientifically reasoned factual plea for greater protection, verses an image that gives the viewer a visceral and emotional response and an urge to do something.

    One of my students did a project that looked at the effect of environmental commercials (http://s3.amazonaws.com/chssweb/documents/7206/original/Ashley_Sitar-Gonzales_Masters_Thesis_Final_5-6-11.pdf?1322670319) – basically those with images eliciting an emotional response led to people wanting to act on environmental issue, especially if they were coupled with information. That’s why, despite them sometimes not being all that threatened, images of whales or cute fuzzy species appeal to the public’s emotions and therefore provoke conservation-positive reactions in a way that facts, well-reasoned argument or images of not cute species do. As several people mentioned above, a picture of a dead dolphin in a similar situation would provoke even more of a negative response.

    So if conservationists what to garner support and attention for issues, they have to think about not just a factual argument but also provoking images, like the shark above, in order to motivate the public, whether we like it or not.

    • Chris: That is a *really* good point. Don’t ignore the emotional response – just ensure that it’s targeted towards a genuine, achievable conservation goal. Great contribution.