How to End the World in One (Kinda) Easy Step

We often hear references made to cutting off the head of a snake. This is usually done to prove the point that removing the upper tier of a group will cause the rest to crumble. Remove the head and the snake will die, simple. We are all well acquainted with the uses of this metaphor when applied to humans. But what if we try something else. Will the metaphor hold up when applied to the non-human? For an example, you need only to pick up a globe, spin it and plant your finger on a random point. 71% of the time that random point will be somewhere in the ocean and that’s where we’ll find our answer.
Firstly, it is important to remember that despite being divided up into EEZs and territorial waters with geographic regions initially named, no part of the ocean is independent. Imbalances in the ecosystem of the Java Sea can have effects on the pelagic organism of the great Pacific which will be felt from Anchorage to San Diego. Fishing trawlers are similarly unbound; whether legal or not Chinese ships may go as far as Kenya.
So back to our metaphorical snake. If the entire ocean is the snake than what would be its head? Simple, apex predators. And there is no marine predator so well known as sharks. And should this “snake’s head” be removed there would be quite the disaster. The removal of an apex predator would lead to an explosion in population of species which occupy lower tiers of the food chain. This would then lead to the depletion of those species’ food sources, causing that recently exploded population to starve and die out. Sure, another predator would rise eventually and equilibrium, in a new form, would be restored. During the interregnum however countless habitats would be destroyed. It would be a regular “silent spring.”
What makes this hypothetical so pressing is the fact that it may not remain a hypothetical. In certain circles the words “shark fin soup” evoke apocalyptic dread. The traditional Chinese dish was traditionally a sign of opulence and has risen in popularity. Commonly served at weddings and important events shark fin soup can range from 10-100 USD making it one of the most expensive seaford dishes. A survey in 16 Chinese cities found that 35% of people reported having eaten the dish and 9% had consumed it three or more times. The role the fin itself plays in the soup is not to add flavor but to thicken it. The fin itself is broken down into collagenous fibers, removing all skin, meat, and cartilaginous skeleton. These tasteless, they literally have no taste, fibers are then added into a soup in order to thicken it.
As the shark fins have risen in demand the number of sharks killed yearly has increased also. Roughly 5000 kilos of fins are consumed daily in Beijing alone. It’s also estimated now that roughly 100 million sharks are killed annually. In 2015 sharks killed a record high, six, humans, globally.
Perhaps the most distressing development from an animal rights perspective is the method known as shark finning. Factory ships will shark an area to depletion. Instead of keeping the sharks they catch however the ships cut the fins of the still living sharks and then hurl the animal back into the sea for a slow and painful death of starvation or suffocation. Finning wastes between 95% and 99% of the animal.
So to what extent have these practices actually affected global shark populations? Well anywhere from 80% to 90% of the population of prime species have been killed off. They are apex predators sharks have evolved to mature slowly and reproduce slowly with long gestation periods.
All in all, we have already, if inadvertently, hacked part of the way through our metaphorical snake’s neck. The damage of what has already been done will be felt throughout our oceans for decades if not centuries. The best solution at this point would be to fight for increased protection, a handful of species have already made their way onto the CITES appendix II but more are still threatened and regulations must be enforced for them to do anything at all.