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Feast Your Eyes: The Shocking Shark Fin Trade

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay goes on the hunt for illegal shark fin traders in Costa Rica.

Photojournalist Alex Hofford took this incredible photo of shark fins drying out on the sidewalk, in "a quiet area of Hong Kong in between the Whitty Street Tram Depot and the Western Wholesale Vegetable Market" last month, after a tip-off from a friend.

Hong Kong is known as the "Grand Central Station" of the brutal trade, in which fishermen cut the fins off endangered sharks while they are still alive, leaving the fin-less fish in the ocean to slowly bleed to death. A 2006 study estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed in this way each year, in a semi-legal trade that is valued at as much as $1 billion.

Troubled celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay recently went to Costa Rica to track down some of the biggest culprits, as part of a new U.K. television series championing sustainable seafood. His description, although affected by some macho posturing, is genuinely shocking:

The day before we got there, a Taiwanese crew landed a haul of hammerhead sharks—police searched the boat and found bails of cocaine. These gangs operate from places that are like forts, with barbed-wire perimeters and gun towers. At one, I managed to shake off the people who were keeping us away, ran up some stairs to a rooftop and looked down to see thousands and thousands of fins, drying on rooftops for as far as the eye could see. When I got back downstairs, they tipped a barrel of petrol over me.

Later in the trip I got hold of a guy called Enrique who manages 350 boats and is the third-largest supplier of shark fins globally. We talked our way onto one of his fishing boats. In a quiet moment I dived from the boat to swim with marlin. I swam under the keel and saw this sack tied to it. I opened it and it was full of shark fins, huge ones from 20-year-olds.


The first show in this Big Fish Fight series is available online now (for users with a U.K. IP address or proxy), and features River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall heading out into the North Sea to address the issue of discards, a side-effect of the E.U. fishing quota system that causes fishermen to throw much of their catch back into the sea, dead, simply because it is illegal to catch more than a certain number of any one species.

Although the efficacy of these kinds of celebrity food system interventions is definitely open to question (the mixed impact of Jamie's Food Revolution being a case in point), this series has claimed an early victory: Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in the U.K., which in turn is the second largest consumer of tuna in the world, today announced plans to switch to 100 percent pole and line-caught fish for its own brand of canned tuna. If you're watching the show, let me know what you think—I'll be reviewing it here after a few more programs have aired.

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