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Environmental Studies club fights shark finning

Inspired by an internationally acclaimed documentary, two Mills College undergraduates organized a screening of “Sharkwater” as part of Earth Week to spread awareness to the campus community about shark finning, the killing of sharks for their fins.

Seniors Tarra La Valley and Emma Giboney’s newly created Environmental Studies club seeks to rally Mills women to petition the selling of shark cartilage products in local health food stores, which contributes to an estimated 100 million sharks that are killed annually for their fins.

A scene of shark-finning exploitation from the documentary Sharkwater. (Courtesy of Rob Stewart)

“I just want to make sure owners of health food stores know what they’re selling. I don’t think they know what goes into making those products,” said La Valley, the vice-president of the Environmental Studies club.

La Valley and Giboney, both environmental studies majors, first watched Rob Stewart’s documentary “Sharkwater” earlier this semester.

The documentary debunks shark stereotypes and explaining sharks’ crucial contribution to the marine ecosystem as predators that keep fish populations and oxygen levels in balance. It also reveals the exploits of illicit shark-finning, the practice of chopping off sharks’ fins — usually while the sharks are still alive — before throwing the carcasses back into the ocean.

Seniors Tarra La Valley and Emma Giboney promoting shark awareness for their Environmental Studies club. (Stephanie Scerra)

“It changed my life,” La Valley said.

After five years of filming off the coast of Cocos Island, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands — during which time he suffered from West Nile virus, tuberculosis and a flesh-eating disease, Dengue fever, all at once — Stewart contextualized what marine biologists have been asserting for years: Sharks are not our enemies and we are driving them to extinction.

According to the “Sharkwater” website, the shark population has decreased 90 percent in the last 50 years because “one pound of dried shark fin can retail for $300 or more,” making the shark-finning trade a multibillion-dollar industry.

Why are shark fins worth so much? Demand for shark-fin soup, an Asian delicacy, pushes between 26 million and 73 million shark fins through Hong Kong markets every year, according to Shark Savers.

“It’s crazy because the shark is tasteless; the soup tastes like chicken broth,” said Giboney, the club’s president.

Asian countries are not the only places that sell shark-fin soup. Just across the bay in San Francisco, there are more than 60 restaurants listed by the Animal Welfare Institute for selling products containing shark fins.

Shark fin products are not limited to shark-fin soup. In fact, brands like Vitamin Shoppe, Seagate and Arizona Natural sell shark cartilage in pill form, boasting of its health benefits.

“People eat them because they think they’ll cure arthritis and cancer when, in reality, they don’t,” La Valley said.

Tarra and Emma tabling at the Shark Awareness booth. (Stephanie Scerra)

In fact, Shark Savers says shark fins often contain high levels of mercury, a poisonous chemical known to cause birth defects in women, sterility in men and damage to the central nervous system in both sexes.

Determined to help stop the unnecessary slaughter of sharks, La Valley and Giboney created a petition against the selling of shark cartilage products in local health food stores. During Earth Week, the two tabled to collect signatures and hosted a viewing of “Sharkwater” to raise awareness and support.

“Like [Rob Stewart] said, we don’t need everyone to make a change, but a group of people — like Mills women — can really help,” La Valley said. “The main problem is people are unaware.”

Stewart himself said in a direct Twitter message to The Campanil that abolishing shark-finning is possible.

“Lead, follow or step aside. Together we can stop shark-finning and save humanity!” he said.

Giboney agreed.

“The more people that know, the more people would change their opinions,” Giboney said. “If a country as powerful as the U.S. can do something about it, they should.”