What do shark fin soup, whaling, and the Cape Wind project have in common (besides just being related to the ocean)? These are all examples of cultural “barriers” to marine conservation, or instances in which a human cultural value has been viewed as unsustainable when it comes to managing the world’s oceans. In fact, global carbon pollution can also be regarded as a cultural barrier to marine conservation as well, since climate change is having a devastating effect on life in the oceans (to learn more about this, see a past blog post here). Each human culture has a slightly different relationship to the ocean, and since I am interested in culture and society as well as environmental sustainability, I’d like to explore this relationship, some common misconceptions, when problems do arise, and how we might approach this issue going forward.

Thousands of years ago, when humans lived in small, fairly isolated communities, our species did not have nearly as big of an environmental footprint as we do today. Humans always have, and always will be, “ecosystem engineers”, shaping and fundamentally changing the environment around us. But that does not mean that we can’t do that sustainably. Many current cultural practices that are coming into conflict with environmental health have roots in ancient societies, but modern patterns like overpopulation, globalization, and climate change have reframed many of these cultural practices in a less sustainable way. The health of the oceans is everyone’s business, and every person on this planet is affected by changes in the ocean. However, it is also imperative that we are always being respectful of different cultures and not exuding judgement on a group that we don’t belong to. Let’s walk through the three cultural examples that I gave in the beginning of this post:

Shark Fin Soup

When I think of cultural “barriers” to marine conservation, shark finning is always the first thing that pops in my mind. Shark fin soup was created in AD 968 (the Sung Dynasty) by a Chinese emperor, who served the expensive dish to impress his guests. The soup is now regarded as a sign of class and wealth, and often comes paired with other seafood dishes at weddings and special events. Elders can also serve shark fin soup at their grandchildren’s weddings to demonstrate their hard work to be able to afford the dish and their generosity to give it to their grandchildren. Today, shark fin soup is usually prepared with chicken and ham broth, and none of the flavor actually comes from the shark meat. One bowl can cost anywhere from $5 to $2,000, depending on the ingredients and how it was prepared.


A bowl of shark fin soup

Since this soup only requires the fin of the shark, killing sharks for the purpose of making these dish is different than the way most fish is caught. The fin of the shark is sliced off and the rest of the shark’s body is thrown back in the ocean. However, without its fin, the shark can’t swim, so the animal sinks to the bottom of the ocean and dies a slow, painful death. Approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year, the vast majority of which are used for shark fin soup, which amounts to between 6.4% and 7.9% of all sharks in the ocean. No more than 4.9% of all sharks can be killed each year to keep global shark populations stable. In other words, way more sharks are being killed than is sustainable. The shark population is declining rapidly, and the ecosystem is feeling it. Sharks are apex predators near the top of the marine food chain, and are extremely important to keep the ecosystem in balance, and ultimately make sure that humans can continue to participate in the marine food web by eating fish.

Several decades ago, shark fin soup was too expensive for most Chinese to afford. But China’s huge population growth, combined with increasing wealth and quality of life, has created a bigger upper class, and therefore more people that can afford shark fin soup. It is still unclear whether people like the taste, and some claim that it tastes like nothing, but shark fin soup continues to be a symbol of wealth in Chinese society. In addition, shark meat often has a high level of mercury content, which is harmful to human health. The impact of this cultural tradition on the environment is extremely evident, but at the same time, this practice has been a part of China’s history for many centuries. Who am I, not being Chinese and never having been to China, to decide what is important or not important to this culture?


The first whaling expedition was believed to have occurred 3,000 years ago, as evidenced by a rock art painting in a cave in Korea. Americans began whaling about 200 years ago, and there are many hilarious (and extremely dangerous) accounts of the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” (a whale with a harpoon in it towing the boat behind it). Whaling is one of the best-documented industries of the time, and in many cases, provide more comprehensive accounts of the marine environment and native human populations than well-known explorers like Captain Cook. In the 19th century, over 2500 American whaling ships made 12,000 voyages in the Pacific Ocean.

On a whaling ship, most societal rules from land were left behind. Whalers were all male, and they gained high-ranked positions through merit and skill alone. For this reason, there were black ship captains in the whaling industry at the same time that the American Civil War was happening on land. Early whaling expeditions didn’t venture very far from shore because once the whale was killed, it had to be brought back quickly to the whaling station to be processed. Whales provided products like whale oil, baleen, teeth, and blubber. However, with the development of technology that allowed whales to be brought on board and processed at sea, whaling expeditions went farther into the ocean. As a result, more whales were killed and populations started to decline.

In 1925, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, now called the International Whaling Commission, was formed, but it took 60 years to implement a full moratorium on whaling. The moratorium is still in place, but allows whaling for aboriginal subsistence and it allows signatory nations to issue “Scientific Permits” to kill whales. Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whales commercially, and Japan has been issuing scientific permits since 1986. However, the validity of Japan’s “scientific whaling” has been called into question, since whale meat is often sold from these expeditions. Whaling has been an extremely important part of Japanese culture for over one thousand years. The Kojiki, which is the oldest Japanese book, chronicles the consumption of whale meat by the first emperor of Japan. Japanese whale meat consumption peaked in 1962, in which 226,000 tons were sold and eaten around the globe.

Another, much smaller group of people, who live across the ocean from Japan, also have a culture that is intertwined with whaling. The Makah Indian tribe in Washington State has been whaling as a part of their culture for 2,000 years. Under the U.S.’s Marine Mammal Protection Act, all whaling is outlawed. However, in 1855, the Makah were granted an exception allowing them to kill up to one whale per year. But the Makah haven’t caught a whale since 1999. Their 1999 hunt was the first they’d had in decades, and it sparked death threats and protests at the Seattle Federal Building. As of 2004, the Makah are not allowed to hunt whales until an Environmental Impact Assessment is performed on the practice, but five Makah men held an illegal hunt in 2007. Last month, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration) issued a document that will start the process to potentially re-allow the Makah to hunt whales. The International Whaling Commission’s moratorium exempts whaling for aboriginal subsistence, but there is an argument that the Makah are not killing whales for subsistence purposes. Again, who are we to determine what is or is not important to a culture, and to devalue cultural practices that are not directly related to subsistence?


The last legal Makah whale hunt on May 17, 1999


Cape Wind Project

About 15 years ago, a new 24 square mile offshore wind farm was proposed to be built off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The wind farm would include 130 wind turbines, and would meet nearly 75% of the energy of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket combined. It is true that we are facing a global energy crisis, and the impending threat of climate change is mandating a hasty transition to renewable energy. The Cape Wind project would certainly be a step in the right direction in terms of providing clean energy to this community. However, there has been much opposition to this project. And I’m not talking about the Koch Brothers, although they have been putting much more money than I ever hope to have in my lifetime into stopping Cape Wind.

Two Native American communities, the Mashapee Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the Aquinnah Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard, have expressed opposition to the project. The culture of these groups requires an undisturbed view of the ocean horizon, and the wind turbines would block that view. Cape Cod beach-goers also don’t want their gorgeous view blocked, but not for ethnic or cultural reasons. However, the Native Americans of this area also believe that the wind turbines would disrupt burial grounds of their ancestors and disturb other areas of cultural importance. There is also some concern about the ecosystem impacts of the wind turbines. When I first heard about this story, I was on the side of the wind developers. Climate change affects everyone, so why should one group of people get in the way? But again, I do not belong to that one group of people. It is not up to me to decide what claims are legitimate or not. There are many other options for installing more renewable energy in the United States, so why are we insisting that this is the place to do it, where a group who has been there longer than all of us is opposing the project on cultural grounds?

In 2010, the Cape Wind Project was approved and it is currently in the financing stage of development.


What Cape Wind will look like from Craigsville, Massachusetts

The health of the oceans is everyone’s business, and every person on this planet is affected by changes in the ocean. However, there are legitimate cultural practices that have come into conflict with conservation efforts. These are only cultural “barriers” because they are often viewed as barriers by people that do not belong to the culture of interest. As an environmental community, we must never let our desire to protect the ecosystem overcome our human instinct to relate to each other in a respectful way.Unfortunately, I don’t know how to effectively address this perceived “conflict” that we see between cultural practices and conservation. I have focused on examples related to the ocean in this post, but this issue applies to any area of conservation, and my last example about Cape Wind demonstrates how integrated ocean systems are to energy systems and social systems. And while I focused on practices from cultures that are very different from my own, I could have easily talked about home aquariums and the ornamental fish trade, or dolphin and whale shows and the psychological and physiological effects on captive animals, both of which are very present in mainstream America. The one thing I know for sure is that until we start respecting people that are different from us, and stop presuming that we know the best way to solve a problem, we cannot hope to achieve environmental sustainability in the oceans or anywhere else.

*Thank you to Mary Malloy of Sea Education Association, my Maritime Studies professor, for all the information about whaling that she shared with me in a lecture.

*Cover image: http://a57.foxnews.com/global.fncstatic.com/static/managed/img/0/0/Hong%20Kong%20Shark%20Fin_Leff.jpg