Cathy Hobbs, University of Exeter
Many shark populations are threatened with extinction. They constitute one of the most endangered groups of vertebrates, a quarter of which even rival that of the rhino in terms of conservation status. In response, numerous conservation measures have been applied in an attempt to halt the decline of endangered species. Policy makers, of course, play a big part in this. However, we, as members of the general public and seafood dish providers, can also help by ensuring endangered sharks stay off the menu.
A team of researchers led by Dr Andrew Griffiths at the University of Exeter sought to investigate the sale of shark products in fishmongers, fish and chip takeaways and Asian food wholesalers in England. The idea stemmed from other studies investigating the sale of endangered sharks in Asia and North America, as well as the continued sale of seafood with non-specific labels in Europe. Through DNA barcoding (a method using specific DNA sequences to identify species) they uncovered patterns of shark species found in the products and highlighted the diverse range of vulnerable sharks on sale to the general public.
While many are aware of the devastating practice of shark finning, the exploitation of sharks is far greater than initially thought. In the study, the most commonly identified species sold to consumers was spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias), a small demersal shark now listed as endangered in Europe and threatened worldwide. It has a Marine Conservation Society rating of 5, which means the fish come from unsustainable stocks. The eagle-eyed amongst us will have noticed that the consumption of spiny dogfish is not in fact a new phenomenon. Rather, it has been eaten in Europe and the UK for decades. In England it’s used predominantly in fish and chips shops but can also be found in restaurants. The scientists’ analysis of shark meat products highlighted the prevalence of this species currently on sale in the UK.
Dogfish and some other very unsustainable species frequently appear on menus labelled under a generic name like ‘rock’ or ‘huss’. This massive lack of transparency means consumers are unwittingly contributing to the demise of these already under-pressure stocks. Of greatest concern is that some restaurants are not going to great enough lengths to check the provenance and are serving their customers fish that should most definitely be left in the sea.
The report emphasises the lack of informative and accurate labelling of seafood – something that restaurants rely on greatly. To overcome this, it is of paramount importance that chefs and restaurant owners strive to produce seafood dishes that display the highest ethical standards with regards to sustainability. Knowing your suppliers, the specific species you’re ordering and ensuring that it comes from sustainable stocks is crucial. We must all take responsibility for the seafood we source and serve.
There are plenty of non-threatened seafood species, yet to be utilised in the restaurant industry. Just because they are not your traditional cod, haddock or salmon, tuna or prawns, should not mean they are any less appealing to consumers. Seafood must be sold dependent on conservation status, not on public demand. Only then will we be able to limit the overexploitation of endangered species.
Please refer to the Marine Conservation Society Seafood Guide which helps by providing information on the sources and sustainability of various seafoods.
Written by Catherine Hobbs
First author of the paper published in Scientific Reports