If you can breathe, thank a shark.
While they don’t put it quite that succinctly, it’s part of Mark DiMaggio and Devon Lambert’s message. They call their endeavor “Spinning to End Finning,” and the duo have been biking across Kentucky and Virginia this summer to help end the practice of shark finning, which consists of catching sharks, cutting off their fins and throwing the sharks back in the water to drown or bleed to death. The fins are sold and eaten as a delicacy.
Before talking about their voyage, DiMaggio, a high school biology teacher, and Lambert, a former student of his who now attends college, both from California, want to talk about why sharks are important and the difficulties of conserving a major marine predator.
It’s hard not to point out that sharks aren’t really known for being cute and nonthreatening. DiMaggio, with the same careful speech one can picture him using in a classroom, nods and addresses this first.
“That makes conserving sharks all the more difficult and challenging, because people feel that, ‘Oh, awesome, the sharks are going to be gone! I can swim the ocean without any fear,’” he says. “And I think it’s also true that some of the people who are doing the overhunting of sharks actually think they’re doing humanity a favor, you know? But there’s an endless number of shark species that are in serious need of conservation.”
DiMaggio says that unlike creatures that are endangered primarily because their habitat is being threatened (think melting ice caps and polar bears), “sharks are being targeted for a body part…to me it’s ferociously cruel. To capture and an animal, cut part of its body off, and toss the rest of it back in the ocean. And that just really stabbed me in the heart.” He cited the documentary “Sharkwater” as his touchstone for realizing this.
Most finning takes place in Central American waters, particularly around Costa Rica. The fins, which are one of the most expensive seafood products in the world, are sold in Asia, though some is bought by a number of Chinese restaurants in America, where shark fin soup can fetch up to $90 a bowl. The dish is purely a status symbol, offering neither any especially unusual flavor nor salutary health benefit, says DiMaggio.
“Any species of shark will do, any age,” says DiMaggio of the sharks being finned. “It’s completely unsustainable. Ecologically, it’s just a disaster in the making. Sharks are 90 percent depleted at this point.”
What difference does that make to people in Kentucky, or Virginia, or anybody who doesn’t plan on taking a dip in the ocean, one might well ask?
“Over 50 percent of the world’s oxygen is created by phytoplankton (tiny organisms that produces chlorophyll) in the ocean,” chimes in Lambert, his tone quiet but serious. “Those same phytoplankton are also absorbing a lot of the carbon dioxide that we are emitting into the atmosphere.” Seemingly the shyer of the two, he nonetheless is very passionate on the subject.
He and DiMaggio explain that sharks feed on fish that eat the plankton, thus keeping the organisms’ numbers high and allowing them to contribute to the world’s oxygen supply. Without sharks to act as population control, the plankton-eating species will deplete this resource, creating disastrous consequences for life on earth coastal and inland.
Currently, five states—California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Illinois—have outlawed the sale of shark fins. DiMaggio would like to see the entire U.S. outlaw it, which would put pressure on other countries to make it illegal as well.
With the help of Gaylene Ewing, a biology student teacher at DiMaggio’s school who mans the Spinning to End Finning website, DiMaggio and Lambert are raising money through their efforts and say that all funds will go directly to shark conservation. Their donations will be distributed to Pretoma and ARCAE, two Costa Rican conservation groups.
The money comes from sponsors and donors who support Spinning to End Finning, which started as an ordinary cross-country biking trip. “I had this plan ever since I was a little kid to pedal across the country,” says DiMaggio. “I’m a dad, and so I couldn’t take the whole entire summer, so I decided to do it in stages. I did Oregon to Montana before I ever knew what was going on with sharks. I had this bike ride kind of going, and I was like, ‘I have to do something.’ So I thought I could integrate the bike ride with shark conservation.”
The two have encountered a lot of generosity and kindness from the people they’ve met along the way, according to DiMaggio. He says that the website Warm Showers, a forum for people willing to host bikers who are passing through, has been a great source for finding shelter and food. It’s on this website that they found the Radford couple on whose back porch they’re telling their story. “So far, peoples’ hospitality has been beyond my wildest expectations,” says Lambert.
This, combined with their dedication to the cause, is heartwarming stuff, but is it enough to overcome peoples’ natural fear of sharks? DiMaggio points out that there are only four or five shark related fatalities each year, worldwide.
“Because of ‘Jaws,’ so many people think sharks are vicious, horrible,” says DiMaggio, as he puts the final nail in the coffin for misconceptions about the seagoing predators. “In the film ‘Sharkwater,’ it says that more people die each year from vending machines falling on them than from shark attacks.”
“Most of the people that we talk to have either never heard of finning or have very little knowledge of it,” says Lambert. “After we talk to them I think almost everyone agrees with us that it’s a wrong practice and it needs to be stopped. Most people are shocked.”
For more information about the project or to offer help, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail donations to Spinning to End Finning, P.O. Box 889, Paso Robles, CA 93446. To follow the ride or make a donation electronically, visit www.endfinning.com.