Shark Week, Shark Meat: Endangered Species for Dinner

Shark swimming
A lemon shark swims above Christopher Neff, a shark attack policy researcher from the University of Sydney, at the Sydney Aquarium on April 9, 2014. David Gray/Reuters

Shark Week, Discovery Channel's weeklong extravaganza on all things shark, is now in its 27th year and boasts record-high ratings for the network. While it's driven generally positive public fascination with sharks, Shark Week has also inspired some less than honorable practices and controversial marketing schemes.

Conservation groups say that Shark Week's popularity has fed people's awe of sharks but also fuels their desire to try shark flesh. To satisfy the recent shark craze, seafood restaurants across the United States are serving up the endangered species in special Shark Week-themed menus. Philadelphia's Doc Magrogan's Oyster House, for instance, is offering blackened shark filet and cracker-dusted "shark bite" appetizers as part of its menu. But all the shark meat tacos and shredded shark cocktails are eating at conservation groups dedicated to preserving marine life.

The special Shark Week menus feature dishes cut primarily from a species called the shortfin mako. These sharks are currently listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list," which separates species into three categories: vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered. The Atlantic population of shortfin mako sharks has dropped dangerously low—with numbers declining 40 to 99 percent from earlier levels—and the Pacific population is dying out as well. Imogen Zethoven, director of the Pew Charitable Trust's Global Shark Conservation Campaign, told Newsweek that humans eating shortfin mako tacos is "the equivalent of eating an African elephant, or lion or cheetah taco."

Between 70 and 100 million sharks are killed each year by commercial fisherman. Most sharks have their fins—the most commercially valuable part of their bodies—cut off, then the rest of the carcass is tossed back into the sea. The fins are typically dried and used to make shark fin soup. The Chinese are especially ravenous for the soup. But conservation groups have been battling its popularity, which led the Chinese government to ban the soup from its internal functions in 2012.

This is a huge step, considering that most of the shark fin soup consumption in China (estimates put it at over 50 percent) was occurring at Chinese government functions, Zethoven says. Historically, it's been economically profitable for countries to be involved in the shark trade, especially with China. But recent WildAid report shows that shark fin sales in China have decreased by 82 percent over the past two years, and fishermen are being paid 80 percent less for the parts.

NPR reports that the number of shortfin mako sharks caught by fisherman has been increasing, despite less demand and declining populations. In 2006, American fishermen reported catching 220,000 pounds of the shark; by 2012 they reported catching over 389,000 pounds of the ocean predator. But given that most sharks are on an endangered watch list, how is shark hunting even legal at this point?

Worldwide, legislation protecting sharks is still lacking. "Being listed on the international red list...doesn't [give it] any legal status. It's up to each individual country to make an assessment themselves and then implement laws if they're considered to be threatened," Zethoven says. "We're in a pretty serious situation with sharks right now. Over half the sharks in the world are threatened."

Currently, the Pew Charitable Trust and other conservation groups are joining forces with the Discovery Channel to promote sustainable shark trade, which means encouraging shark tourism instead of shark fishing. Zethoven says this promotes the real spirit of Shark Week—a celebration of these mystifying creatures. "Shark Week is about the wonder of sharks and the incredible role they play in the marine ecosystem as a top predator," she says. "We celebrate that on land with lions—and increasingly we are with sharks—but it's a rather perverse thing that restaurants are offering shark meat."

Comedian Tracy Morgan once advised a co-worker to "live every week like it's Shark Week" on NBC's 30 Rock. Morgan meant we must strive to live every week to its fullest, but living like it's Shark Week—which it is right now—might actually cause sharks to go extinct.