Let?s grind up all the sharks

At a family dinner in Pennsylvania when I was a teenager, my grandma was proclaiming the value of pills made from ground shark cartilage. She claimed it was good for the health of her joints.

Someone (probably me) questioned whether it was good to harvest sharks extensively when some of their populations were already so low. My aunt retorted, ?I guess it depends on which is more important, people or sharks!?

I pondered this for a while. It was a juicy sound bite common in some political election seasons, but something seemed fishy about it.

Later, I realized it was a dramatically short-sighted approach to the use of nature. What happens when the sharks are extinct and humans need cartilage or some other medicine from sharks? What about the role that sharks play in keeping food fish populations high, populations on which millions of people rely?

Before I lived in Kansas, I developed a taste for seafood. I like the taste of shark. I used to buy shark steaks: firm white flesh surrounded by a thin layer of rough blue skin. As I placed the steaks on my grill, I licked my lips while thinking about all the fish that went into making the apex predator I was about to consume.

Now I realize that shark steak is not a good food to buy from the perspective of sustaining our ocean ecosystems. There are much more sustainable seafood species, such as sardines and herrings, that can be harvested without appreciably lowering their populations.

Sharks are not the only ocean creature in trouble. A fishery is the term for a specific population of fish in a specific region of the ocean regularly harvested for food.

Most of the world?s fisheries are being harvested at unsustainable rates, with a total collapse possible by 2050.

This past weekend, I attended the Prairie Festival at the Land Institute, Salina, with some of my students. We camped in the grass with dozens of other colleges, and heard Bible scholars, philos?ophers, scientists, and journalists discussing the idea that humans can change our environment.

Half of the Earth?s primary productivity is now used by humans, a mass extinction of species is under way because of habitat loss, and climate change is modeled to cause the extinction of many more species and to destabilize human societies.

A short-sighted approach toward the natural environment has been dangerous to many societies in the past, such as Mayans, Romans, and Easter Island. Now we are talking about the entire planet.

The apocalyptic framework of climate change due to the Industrial Revolution?s greenhouse gas emission now underlies policy for most of the world?s scientists, the United Nations, and the U.S. military.

The predictions associated with the latest atmospheric data and models are frightening. But when I have had enough apocalyptic readings for the day, I try to convince myself that the predictions are exaggerated.

I can identify numerous acquaintances, relatives and celebrities who see no moral problems with the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on the atmosphere. Some do not even accept the reality of climate change. Parts of my own lifestyle reflect the idea that climate change is irrelevant. And even if the doomsday predictions are accurate, won?t technology save us from the problem that technology created?

Using popular opinion to make moral choices is a spiritually dangerous way to live. I implore you to not absorb catchy sound bites as you think about complex situation such as ecosystem sustainability.

Read widely. Talk to people who disagree with you. Be willing to consider that your view of nature and your ethical framework might not be the best of all possible systems. I assure you that grinding up all the sharks into pills is not the smartest move.

Andrew Sensenig is assistant professor of biology at Tabor College. You can email him at andrew.tabor.edu.

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