One of my earliest and most horrifying cinematic experiences was at the tender age of five. Orca tells the story of an Irish fisherman on the Canadian eastern seaboard who attempts to make his fortune by catching a great white shark for an aquarium. His crew spot a whopper of a shark which ends up targeting a fisherman who, of course, had the misfortune of falling in the water; fortunately a killer whale saves him by attacking the shark. The captain turns his sights instead to the whale, accidentally harpooning its mate, a pregnant female who, upon being dragged onto the boat by her tail, miscarries and dies a slow and painful death. Her mate, watching the horrific scene unfolding, sets out to avenge her murder, terrorizing the town and the fisherman for the rest of the film. It was, in hindsight, a horror film with a strong ecological message, though panned by critics and unfairly compared to Jaws (note: Jaws did not have Charlotte Rampling in its favour). But the moral of the story was lost on my young mind. The scene of these two great predators thrashing it out in the sea, blood gushing in all directions, was too much for me. It took me years to overcome my fear of water and the toothsome, ferocious monsters that lurked within its depths.
So it’s surprising that, after moving to Florida a few years later, I took quite a liking to deep-sea fishing. As any fisherperson knows, there is nothing better than relaxing on a boat with a line in the water, waiting for a bite. Our catch was usually grouper, which were abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, at least in the early eighties. Given my fear of the water, it was even more surprising that one day I jumped into the clear, blue depths. I didn’t linger; my strategy was in and out, nobody gets hurt.
Almost as soon as I had dragged myself back onto the boat, proud and exhilarated by my bravery though also just a little panicked, a shark casually swam past at a depth of about 10 metres, precisely below where I had just been swimming. A second appeared a few moments later. They were, in all likelihood, curious and harmless gummy or school sharks. But in my childish mind’s eye, all sharks existed simply to prey on humans. There was much excitement on the boat. Rods were quickly cast, mine included. As it happened, the first shark grabbed my line; the second grabbed my mother’s. As a runty nine-year old, I lacked the strength to reel it in myself, but with a little assistance from a grown-up, I caught my first (and only) shark. A group effort brought the two sharks on board, and the boat’s captain swiftly clubbed them on the head to prevent anyone from being hurt as they thrashed around violently, naturally fighting for their lives. They were beheaded, bled, gutted and put straight into a large cooler. Later they were cut into steaks and distributed between us; my mother served ours in a tomato-based sauce of some description. I always enjoyed the fish we caught, but this shark was particularly delectable, even for the fussy eater that I was. Shark flesh is white, the flavour delicate and the texture remains firm but moist if it is properly cooked.
This was the first time it occurred to me that, where sharks are concerned, the food chain goes both ways. While I had always imagined myself as a small and tasty morsel for the predators of the deep, it was this moment that taught me that we humans were also predators, perhaps much more so than the creatures which haunt our collective imaginations through cinema and literature. Shark meat was not something I came across when I moved back to Canada in the mid-eighties. We were too busy raping our oceans of halibut and cod, for which the Canadian government paid a dear price when cod stocks and, with them, their fishing communities collapsed completely in 1992. Tragically, the cod never recovered. All the warning signs were there. We chose to ignore them.
In the last thirty years, the global shark population has declined by approximately 90%. This is an alarming statistic given the important role sharks play in our world. They are so perfectly evolved that sharks were swimming around in their current form when the earth still had only two continents. At 400 million years old, they are some of the oldest animals on the planet, having been through five major extinction events and surviving just fine – until now. Curious and intelligent creatures, they can live for several decades and take a long time to reach maturity, hence the difficulty in replenishing stocks. As apex predators – that is, an animal that sits at the top of the food chain – sharks have shaped the marine ecosystem by controlling the population of species that exist beneath them. This means not only the fish they eat, but also the prey of their prey, right down to the phytoplankton which supplies the earth with approximately half of its supply of oxygen. Toying with the top of the chain has a ripple effect all the way to the smallest units of life, in ways that we as humans have only an inkling.
Upon moving to Melbourne in my mid-twenties I was surprised to find shark in fish and chips shop under the generic and much-less threatening category of ‘flake’. Flake is somewhat of a misnomer as it lumps a number of edible sharks under one umbrella. At various points in time, depending on availability, this may include wobbegongs along with dog, gummy, school, saw and elephant sharks. Even more confusing is that each may be known by several names. School shark (Galeorhinus galeus), commonly found in supermarkets around the world despite being considered a threatened species, is also known as tope shark, soupfin shark or snapper shark. Not all edible sharks are threatened, but many are. It’s difficult to know one way or another without accurate labeling.
Today, flake is most likely to be gummy shark which is not (yet) a threatened species. However, in decades gone by, school shark was the popular targeted species until it was over-fished, and the industry was forced to target a new species. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority regulates the net length and size used by industrial shark fishers to avoid catches of the wrong size and to protect certain species from capture. But it’s well accepted by the authorities that a certain number of school sharks are caught as by-catch – the total allowable catch in 2007 was 240 tonnes – as a result of gummy shark fishing. This does not include school shark that might be killed as by-catch in which shark is not the target. The hunting of more prolific species such as gummy shark therefore often leads to the incidental depletion of other species. School shark is just one of many species under threat from overfishing, and as we continue to move from one species to the next leading to every decreasing stocks, the unavoidable question is whether shark populations will face the same future as Canadian cod.
But it is not really a demand for flake that is driving the depletion of shark populations globally. The real money is in shark finning, a multi-billion dollar industry that involves cutting the fins off living sharks before throwing them back into the water, still alive, where they sink to the bottom and die slowly. It is wasteful and cruel. Compared to the value of the fins, the flesh itself is worthless and often inedible, particularly from larger sharks due to the high mercury in their muscle. Fins are sold for upwards of $400 a kilo. A single fin from the enormous and endangered basking shark, second in size only to the gentle whale shark, is worth over $50,000. One serving of shark fin consommé in Melbourne goes for $60; a well-known seafood restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown sells braised shark fin for $110 per person. Shark fin is very big business, and it’s doing a roaring trade both locally and globally.
Killing sharks exclusively for their fins is illegal in Australia, though imported shark fins are not, nor are the fins that are ostensibly a by-product of legal shark fisheries. Shark fins are dried and exported to and from many countries around the world. Not only is shark fin considered an important status food in parts of Asia, it is also perceived to have health benefits such as curing cancer (though this is utterly unsubstantiated). The culinary value of shark fin is in its texture rather than its flavour. It seems a rather high price to pay for product that has little taste yet results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sharks every day.
Humans are more like sharks than we might like to imagine. We too are top-order predators. This means we shape the ecosystems in which we live, including the shark’s. The key difference is that sharks have lived in harmony with their environment for 400 million years. We, on the other hand, have been hell-bent on systematically destroying our own environment and that of countless other species for at least a century. We are very efficient killers when we set our minds to it. This begs the question: who is the more ferocious predator, sharks or humans?
So what can be done? Approximately 14% of the earth’s landmass is under conservation protection compared to less than 1% of the ocean. We need more marine reserves in which sharks can left to breed in peace. More research is required on the effects that the depletion of sharks are having on the overall marine environment. We need much tighter quotas on how many can be caught and by what means. I would argue that we should not be eating shark at all. But if we must, restrictions are needed on the technologies used to catch sharks (and other fish). Large-scale industrial trawling and netting combined with sonar and satellites technologies mean aquatic species barely stand a chance. Yet there are fishermen around the world, even here in Australia, that use small-scale and sustainable methods for fishing, and just like in agriculture, these are the food producers we need to support. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for consumers to differentiate between industrial and traditional fishing practices, unless our fishmonger is aware enough to ask at source. As consumers, we need to be more curious and cautious about what we buy. If you don’t know the species or how it was caught, it’s best not to go there.
As much as I would love to offer a culinary ode to the wonderful grouper of my childhood, I recommend whiting as it is fast-growing and available all year round with relatively robust stocks around the Australian coast. Besides that, it is a very fine fish.
This recipe comes from Hilary McNevin’s Guide to Fish: Choosing and Cooking Sustainable Species, an excellent resource on a variety of Australian fish species, along with information on seasonality and recipe suggestions.
Whole baked King George Whiting with sauce gribiche
2 whole King George Whiting
salt and pepper
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 cup olive oil
80 ml red wine vinegar
cornichons to taste (start with 6 and add from there as you wish)
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
Heat oven to 180C. Place a piece of foil big enough to wrap around one whole whiting on the kitchen bench, and on top of this, put a piece of baking paper. Place the fish on top of this. Pour over olive oil and season to taste. Place in oven and check after 20 minutes. Remove from oven, and open the foil and baking paper. Cook a further 10 minutes to crisp up the skin a little.
For the sauce, hard-boil the eggs, then run under cold water and shell. Separate the yolks from the whites. Mash the yolk into a paste, add the mustard and, in a steady stream, pour the olive oil as you would when making a mayonnaise. Add the vinegar.
Finely chop the egg whites and cornichons; add to the sauce and season to taste. Finish by stirring through the chopped parsley. Pour over the fish and serve.
Hilary recommends a Clare or Eden Valley Riesling to complement the sweetness of the whiting.
For further guide to fish species in Australia, see the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide at www.sustainableseafood.org.au.
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