What's good for sharks is good for the economy.
Which is better for sharks, communism or capitalism?
You have probably not given a moment's thought to how ideological leanings affect the creatures that have swum in our oceans for nearly 400 million years. But it turns out that the transition between economic systems—from barter economies and feudal ones, to communism and capitalism—has had profound impacts on great whites, whale sharks, and a host of other sharks.
The state of the Chinese economy didn't really matter to sharks until a thousand years ago. (That's a blip in time, from the sharks' perspective, given that they emerged during the Devonian period.) During the Sung Dynasty, between 960 and 1279, a small group of elites began consuming noodles made from the cartilage in sharks' fins, a dish known as shark's fin soup. The dish gained popularity during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, when a Chinese admiral named Cheng Ho traveled to Africa and brought back fins that African villagers discarded in favor of the meat. Shark's fin soup became a standard offering in formal banquets during the Ming Dynasty.
But after Mao brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949, shark's fin soup fell out of favor. As a delicacy enjoyed by elites, it became politically toxic during the Cultural Revolution. "Although it was never outlawed, it was frowned upon," is the way Susie Watts, an adviser to the Humane Society International based in Britain, puts it.
That began to change in the late 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping instituted his market reforms. The economic changes spawned a new upper and middle class in China, and members of both groups sought ways to display their wealth. Buying art (including pieces produced by Deng's daughter) was one way; eating shark's fin soup was another.
"It was politically rehabilitated," Watts explains. "Consuming it gave them a sense of being part of the new aristocracy in China."
As China's economic power has grown, so, too, has the targeting of sharks worldwide. According to scientists, between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, which sell for 100 times the cost of shark meat. It is a required item at almost any wedding banquet or important business meal in China.
And as with so many products in capitalist society, it's gone downscale as it's proliferated. It's no longer just a fancy soup: There's shark's fin sushi and a pillowy white cake in Japan made from sharks known as hanpen; spiny dogfish sharks are made into fish and chips for British consumers; and shark's fin cat food is even sold in some markets.
Last week, a group of ocean scientists released a report concluding that the sea is in much worse shape than previously thought. Noting that we are now observing the kinds of disruptions "associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth," the report's authors warn that we need to reassess the way we use the ocean to meet our financial needs and desires. "It is clear that the traditional economic and consumer values that formerly served society well, when coupled with current rates of population increase, are not sustainable," they write.
Perhaps Mao was on to something. It may be that community-oriented property laws provide a better model for how to treat the sea. Several island cultures operate on the principle that tribes own the rights to coral reefs off their coasts. As I write in my new book, Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks *, this has allowed the villagers of Selpele and Salio in Indonesian Papua to create marine reserves that harbor sharks as well as a stunning array of other species. Palau's president Johnson Toribiong invoked this tradition when he created the world's first shark sanctuary in 2009. Toribiong explained he was imposing the same sort of "bul"—a prohibition on exploiting natural resources—that Palau's tribal chiefs imposed in ancient times.
This is not to say that socialist-style methods are always a boon to sharks. Cuba reports that it lands 700 tons of sharks a year, which is only a little less than the entire commercial shark fishery in the southeastern United States. And Honduras—which is governed by conservative president Porfirio Lobo Sosa—just created the world's third shark sanctuary when he permanently banned shark fishing off his nation's 92,665-mile exclusive economic zone on its Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
And now environmentalists are trying to use capitalism to make the case for shark conservation. A recent Australian study found that, over the course of its lifetime, a reef shark off Palau brings in $1.9 million to the nation's economy, and shark tourism brings Palau $18 million annually. Matt Rand, who directs global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group, said people are beginning to rethink how they can profit from these terrifying creatures.
"Generally a lot of the economics of sharks has been either in a bowl of shark's fin soup or in movie theater, scaring people," Rand says. "I hope we're changing that, and people are beginning see their value in the marine ecosystem, and their value in terms of tourism."
Shark economics may defy neat ideological categories, but there's one simple and surprising rule that applies: They're worth more alive than dead.
Correction, June 30, 2011: This article originally misstated the subtitle of the book Demon Fish. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Juliet Eilperin, national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.