In 1999, health food chain Holland & Barrett began to sell shark cartilage capsules. Following protests from Viva! supporters, the company quickly withdrew the product from all its stores. Now (June 2001), shark cartilage is back on their shelves and Viva! is once again putting pressure on Holland and Barrett to permanently remove the capsules.
The company say that their product is sourced from spiny dogfish - and claim the capsules are a by-product of cartilage obtained for other commercial uses.
The spiny dogfish
Spiny dogfish sharks (Squalus acanthias) are also known as catsharks, cape sharks, piked dogfish, dogfish, flake, huss or rock salmon. Theyare one of around 400 species of shark - a fascinating group of fish who have lived on earth for over 300 million years. Sharks differ from other fish because their skeletons consist of soft, flexible cartilage instead of bones.
Dogfish sharks can live for up to 25 or 30 years. They are dark grey with white spots on their top surface and off-white on their bellies. They average 3 or 4 feet in length. Dogfish mainly eat fish, but also squid, crabs, shrimp and jellyfish. Pups are born after a gestation period of around 18 to 24 months - among the longest of all vertebrates.
This ancient species is being placed under ever-increasing commercial pressure. Dogfish fins (seen as relatively low-grade) are hacked off to be used in shark fin soup. Their cartilage is made into Ôwonder tabletsÕ, claimed by retailers to cure all manner of human afflictions - from arthritis to cancer. Under the guise of 'rock salmon', dogfish sharks are also sold in numerous fish & chip shops. Supermarkets label the shark meat as ÔhussÕ, presumably because they are not keen to advertise the fact that they are stocking shark.
A cruel kill
Spiny dogfish are caught in the UK and all over the world. Targeted fisheries exist, but many of the fish are caught as a ÔbycatchÕ of other fisheries. Fishing methods used to catch dogfish in Europe include trawlers, seine nets and deep longlines.1 Sink-gill nets are mainly used in the USA2. Each of these methods will involve suffering for the sharks.
Trawlers tow a huge net along behind them, and are used to catch fish right at the bottom of the ocean. As the sharks caught in the nets are brought up from the ocean, they may be blinded by exposure to daylight. Often fish are crushed under the huge weight of the other fish.
Seine nets are like a huge bag which can enclose a whole shoal of fish. They tend to be used when fish are swimming away from the bottom of the sea. As spiny dogfish tend to swim in schools according to age and sex, this method can be used to catch whole schools of adult females (the largest and most valuable fish), drastically affecting the future population. Seine nets frequently catch dolphins and other sea mammals as well.
Sink gill nets operate like a tangle net. Fishermen sink the net to the bottom of the ocean and leave it there for fish to - literally - get tangled up in.
Deep longlines use thousands of baited hooks which are attached to lines stretching several kilometres. In their information sheet, ÔFacts about Shark FishingÕ, the Shark Protection League explain, ÔA shark will often vomit up everything in an attempt to get rid of the hook which is causing the pain. Many sharks, especially blue sharks, will cough up their entire stomachs.Õ.
Sharks have been on this planet for millions of years, but there is now serious danger that some species wonÕt be around for much longer. Humans are ruthlessly harming and killing them in a greedy quest to market every part of their body - meat, fins and cartilage. Hardly a thought is given as to the long-term survival of each species.
Massive population decline
'The very characteristics which have made sharks and rays so successful are now threatening their survival. Most are adapted to a position at the top of the marine food chain. Each female only produces enough young to maintain the population under low, natural levels of mortality. They cannot adapt by producing larger numbers of young to replace the huge quantities now being killed by man. As a result, sharks and rays are seriously threatened by unregulated fisheries.'
The European Elasmobranch Association
The worldÕs oceans are on the brink of collapse. Commercial fishing has decimated fish stocks, and dogfish sharks are no exception. A large percentage of the annual dogfish catch is not recorded as the fish are a 'bycatch' caught during fishing for other species. Unregulated fishing has led to a massive decline in numbers. The Shark Trust estimate that the dogfish population in Europe has halved during the last 10 years.
As dogfish populations decline in one area, fishing simply steps up somewhere else. This short-sighted attitude is clearly not sustainable. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) explain that, 'As European dogfish landings have declined, US dogfish fisheries have intensified to meet demand and there are indications of adverse effects on stocks as a result.'.3
A TRAFFIC Europe report on shark fisheries concludes that dogfish, 'will be in direct threat from over-exploitation if intensive fishing continues to occur throughout its range, as is currently taking place'.4 Shark fisheries are not regulated under the EU Common Fisheries Policy, although an EU proposal has now been tabled for consideration which would require the recording and reporting of certain species - including dogfish. A 'dogfish management plan' is also under discussion in the USA, following a 1997 declaration by US scientists that the Northwest Atlantic spiny dogfish population was ÔoverfishedÕ.5
The whole dogfish saga is typical of our attitude to the animals we share our planet with. They have been mercilessly exploited with no thought as to the consequences - despite the fact that they are slow to reproduce and therefore extremely vulnerable to overfishing. Suddenly, and predictably, numbers decline dramatically. Politicians panic and start frantically devising last-minute 'management plans' in an attempt to restore the damage - instead of simply preventing the problem from happening in the first place.
Shark cartilage - the new Ôwonder drugÕ?
Sharks are now being killed not just for their meat and fins, but also because of the life-giving properties alleged to be contained in their cartilage. Health food stores like Holland & Barrett have been quick to cash in on these claims, and have begun peddling shark cartilage capsules in their stores.
H&B say shark cartilage can be used as a treatment for arthritis and joint problems. But a US cartilage vendor, Aqua Blue says that evidence that cartilage helps arthritis is 'anecdotal'.6 Viva! has found no evidence of clinical studies proving that shark cartilage can help to treat arthritis.
There is also much debate as to whether shark cartilage is a useful treatment for cancer sufferers. Some research has shown that the cartilage can inhibit tumour growth, and this has led retailers to extol the possible cancer-curing benefits of their products via the internet.
A 1997 study sponsored by the US-based Cancer Treatment Research Foundation, Cartilage Technologies and Cancer Treatment Centers of America, concluded that shark cartilage is not an effective treatment for advanced-stage cancer in adults. Dennis Miller, the principal investigator, said the research constituted, Ôthe largest study ever conducted to determine whether or not shark cartilage is an effective treatment modality for cancerÕ. He added, ÔUntil now, supporting preclinical studies were scanty and reports of trials in humans were anecdotal, uncontrolled and outside of the peer-review mechanism.Õ.7
Viva! believes that it is wrong to exploit animals for the sake of health benefits to humans which have not even been proven. The rumours surrounding shark cartilage mean that there are huge profits to be made by companies who sell ÔnaturalÕ pills and potions. Although retailers claim that the cartilage is a Ôby-productÕ, their demand for cartilage has meant that killing sharks has become an even more lucrative business. Any retailer who stocks shark cartilage is supporting the cruel killing of sharks for their meat and fins and placing even more pressure on vulnerable shark populations.
Help stop the cruelty!
1. Fleming, E.F. and Papageorgiou, P.A. (1997). Shark fisheries and trade in Europe, TRAFFIC Europe.
2. Rose, D.A., Shark Fisheries and Trade in the Americas, TRAFFIC North America, March 1998
3. WWF Website: www.wwf-uk.org/vanishing/sharks/page1.htm
4. Fleming, E.F. and Papageorgiou, P.A. (1997). Shark fisheries and trade in Europe, TRAFFIC Europe.
5. Letter from Sonja Fordham at the Washington Centre for Marine Conservation.
6. Aqua Blue website: www.uniserve.com/commerce/aquablue/aquaprod.html
7. DoctorÕs Guide to Medical and Other News: www.pslgroup.com/dg/2981a.htm