Excuse Me Waiter, But There’s an Endangered Species in my Bowl of Soup!

September 4, 2012

NOTE: The following editorial by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag was originally written for National Geographic’s “Ocean Views” blog. Dr. Hammerschlag is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and recipient of multiple grants from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.

Would you eat a bowl of soup if you knew that is was made with minced endangered species? What about if it was also packed full with neurotoxins that can cause degenerative brain disease? Still hungry?

This is the case when it comes to shark fin soup, primarily a Chinese delicacy. The soup itself has no color, taste, or smell and requires addition of chicken, beef, or pork broth to add flavor. However, the cartilage from the shark fin provides texture to the soup. So, why consume it? Because it is a cultural sign of wealth and traditionally consumed at celebratory events including weddings.

Sadly, the demand for shark fin is driving several shark populations toward extinction. Tens of millions of sharks are killed annually for their fins!  However, many shark species are late to mature, have few young and reproduce very infrequently – they are simply being removed faster than they can reproduce. For example, studies suggest that some hammerhead species in the northwest Atlantic have declined over 89% between 1986 and 2000. A new study, which carried out DNA testing on shark fin soup served in 14 U.S. cities, revealed that endangered shark species, including hammerheads, were being served up at local restaurants.

Shark meat is rarely consumed. Their tissues contain high levels of urea (as in the main substance found in urine) that helps them osmoregulate in the oceans (jargon that basically means maintaining water balance so they don’t become too dehydrated)[4]. This makes their meat, for the most part, worthless. In contrast, trading in shark fins is extremely lucrative. A single bowl of soup can cost hundreds of dollars. So, when a boat goes out to harvest shark fins, they would prefer not to waste their precious cargo space on massive shark bodies, instead keeping only their fins. So, in most parts of the world, fisherman catch the sharks, hack off their fins, and discard the rest of the shark’s body at sea, leaving them to die on the ocean floor. This act is called “finning.”

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Giant Bull Shark Surprises Researchers

June 8, 2012

NOTE: This photo and accompanying story of Dr. Neil Hammerschlag and a 1,000+ lb. bull shark has made headlines around the world this week. Neil is a respected shark expert who has traveled with Guy on shark expeditions in the past, and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation has awarded several grants to Neil to help fund his shark research. 

Article courtesy of OurAmazingPlanet

For scientist Neil Hammerschlag, it was just another Sunday. He was out cruising the reefs near the Florida Keys, hunting for sharks — not as trophies, but for research aimed at keeping them out of display cases and in the water. In many places, these iconic predators are disappearing.

A research assistant professor at the University of Miami, and the director of its R. J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, Hammerschlag spends every other weekend in southern Florida dragging baited, shark-safe lines behind a boat, hoping one of his research subjects will take a bite.

When he and his team catch one, they outfit the shark with either a satellite tag or an ID tag, take tiny samples of muscle and fin and a vial’s worth of blood (they check to see if the shark is pregnant), then send the shark on its  way. The whole process takes about five minutes.

Big catch

On Sunday, May 27, they were having plenty of luck. Something snagged the other end of the 75-foot (23-meter) line, and Hammerschlag began to pull it in. Right away, he said, he could tell something was different.

“It’s a lot of work to bring up a line, but I can usually do it myself,” he says. This time, he needed help.

He and a colleague joined forces. “We didn’t know if we were pulling up a sunken boat, a monster shark, a school bus — we had no idea which it was,” Hammerschlag told OurAmazingPlanet.

They were in about 150 feet (46 m) of water, and, even as the two men strained to pull in whatever it was, it remained invisible, hidden by the murk of the shallow ocean.

“As soon as it came to the surface, it literally took my breath away, it was so big,” Hammerschlag said. They had hooked a massive bull shark, the region’s top predator; the shark was about 10 feet (3 m) long and, the researchers estimated, over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms).

“It’s one of the biggest bull sharks I’ve ever caught, and it’s the biggest bull shark I’ve ever tagged,” Hammerschlag said — and he’s tagged more than 1,000 sharks. “When this guy rocked up, it just took my breath away.”

Iconic predators

It turned out it was, in fact, a lady. Like many other shark species, female bull sharks are larger than males. But bull sharks of either sex are nothing to be trifled with. Like great white sharks and tiger sharks, bull sharks have serrated teeth — an accessory that allows them to rip and tear apart their meals, which means they can go after far bigger prey than smaller shark species can.

Bull sharks “have the most testosterone of any animal on the planet, so that should tell you a little something,” Hammerschlag said. They also like to hang out in shallow, coastal waters.

Despite what this implies for our own species, Hammerschlag said the sharks don’t specifically target people. “They possess the machinery but lack the motivation,” he said.

Bull sharks are one of the three species most often blamed for unprovoked, deadly shark attacks around the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Big threats

Yet far more commonly, people attack sharks. Their fins, prized for shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese dish, fetch high prices. According to numbers cited by the Humane Society, as many as 73 million sharks are killed for their fins each year.

Overall, many shark species are facing steep declines. Figuring out what is driving that trend, and reversing it, is a big motivation of Hammerschlag’s research. “We know a lot of shark populations are in trouble, but the question is, what is happening to Florida Keys sharks?” he said. “And if you want to be effective at conserving them, what would it take?”

Because they had run out of satellite tags — they’re expensive — after taking biological samples, Hammerschlag attached a simple ID tag to the bull shark. They’d have no way of tracking the giant female. With a push, Hammerschlag sent the shark on her way. He said the experience wasn’t scary.

“This is a predator like none other in the world, and it deserves complete respect and attention,” he said. “If your heart doesn’t skip a beat, you don’t have enough respect for it.”


Neurotoxins in shark fins: A human health concern

February 24, 2012

 This article was originally published  by EurekAlert! global news service. Dr. Neil Hammerschlag of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is a past collaborator with the Guy Harvey Research Institute and has previously been awarded grant money by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.

University of Miami study shows alarming accumulation of BMAA neurotoxins in shark fins; may pose a threat to shark fin consumers

MIAMI – (February 23, 2012) — Sharks are among the most threatened of marine species worldwide due to unsustainable overfishing. Sharks are primarily killed for their fins alone, to fuel the growing demand for shark fin soup, which is an Asia delicacy. A new study by University of Miami (UM) scientists in the journal Marine Drugs has discovered high concentrations of BMAA in shark fins, a neurotoxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases in humans including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig Disease (ALS). The study suggests that consumption of shark fin soup and cartilage pills may pose a significant health risk for degenerative brain diseases.

“Shark fins are primarily derived through finning, a practice where by shark fins are removed at sea and the rest of the mutilated animal is thrown back in the water to die,” said co-author Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, research assistant professor of Marine Affairs & Policy and director of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program (RJD) at UM. “Estimates suggest that fins from as many as 70 million sharks end up in soup. As a result, many shark species are on the road to extinction. Because sharks play important roles in maintaining balance in the oceans, not only is shark fin soup injurious to the marine environment, but our study suggests that it is likely harmful to the people who are consuming them.”

Seven species of shark were tested for this study: blacknose, blacktip, bonnethead, bull, great hammerhead, lemon, and nurse sharks. Samples were collected from live animals in waters throughout South Florida.

“The concentrations of BMAA in the samples are a cause for concern, not only in shark fin soup, but also in dietary supplements and other forms ingested by humans, ” says study co-author Prof. Deborah Mash, Director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank. The Bank supports basic and clinical research and holds one of the world’s largest collection of postmortem human brains encompassing a wide range of neurological disorders. In 2009, Prof. Mash and her co-authors published a study in the journal Acta Neurological Scandinavica, demonstrating that patients dying with diagnoses of Alzheimer’s Disease and ALS had unusually high levels of BMAA in their brains up to 256 ng/mg, whereas normal healthy aged people had no BMAA, or only trace quantities of the toxin present. “BMAA was first linked to neurodegenerative diseases in Guam, which resulted in the progressive loss of structure and function of neurons.”

The shark study found a similar range and even higher BMAA in the fins tested. The new study found levels of between 144 and 1836 ng/mg of BMAA, which overlapped the levels we measured in the brains of Alzheimer’s and ALS victims. Surprisingly, this level fits with the BMAA levels in fruit bats examined by Paul Cox, animals which concentrate BMAA from their diet of cycad seeds. He linked ingestion of fruit bats to the severe ALS/Parkinsonism dementia that afflicted many people in Guam.

“Not only does this work provide important information on one probable route of human exposure to BMAA, it may lead to a lowering of the demand for shark fin soup and consumption of shark products, which will aid ocean conservation efforts,” added Hammerschlag.

Guy Harvey & tiger shark - Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Neil Hammerschlag.


The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation Awards Research Grant to Dr. Neil Hammerschlag of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program

July 25, 2011

Ft. Lauderdale, FL – July 25, 2011 – The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) is excited to announce it has awarded funding to Dr. Neil Hammerschlag of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami for his research “Assessing the Cascading Ecosystem Impacts of Marine Apex Predator Declines”.

Dr. Hammerschlag aims to determine the effects of declining populations of tunas, billfish and sharks on the overall health of the ocean environment. This will be accomplished through a series of integrated field and laboratory studies including field surveys, stable isotope analysis, genetic studies and blood hormone analysis. The GHOF has previously partnered with Dr. Hammerschlag on several shark research projects and is pleased to once again, support his top-tier research.

Tiger Shark - Tiger Beach, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Bill Watts.

“The ocean’s top predators are under unprecedented pressure from unsustainable fishing practices and changes in the ocean chemistry”, says world renowned marine artist and biologist Dr. Guy Harvey. “Neil’s research will give us great insight into how their removal will impact the entire marine ecosystem.” This project will build on previous research funded by the GHOF to promote the conservation and enhancement of the world’s pelagic fisheries.

A recent development among a tiger shark population being tracked by Dr. Hammerschlag within a separate study underscores the importance of this type of research. Cuban fisherman recently landed a tagged tiger shark in Caribbean waters and sold it to dealers who will ultimately send the shark to the Asian markets. Dr. Hammerschlag reports that over 10% of his tagged tiger sharks have now been killed by commercial fisherman. Visit the links below to see the interactive tracking maps of the remaining tagged sharks within the study:

Linda: Bahamas straight to Bermuda:
http://www.rjd.miami.edu/learning-tools/follow-sharks/track-linda.html

Dominic: Went from Berry Islands then straight to Bimini (been in Bimini for over a month now)
http://www.rjd.miami.edu/learning-tools/follow-sharks/track-dominic.html

Mary Kent: Just a big move to the middle of the Atlantic??
http://www.rjd.miami.edu/learning-tools/follow-sharks/track-mary-kent.html

About the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation

The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) funds inspired scientific research and innovative educational programs to encourage conservation and best management practices for sustainable marine environments. The GHOF will help ensure that future generations will enjoy and benefit from a naturally balanced ocean ecosystem where fish and other marine wildlife flourish.

About the University of Miami and the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program
The University of Miami is the largest private research institution in the southeastern United States. Founded in 2009, the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program is a joint program of the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and the Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami. The mission of the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program is to advance ocean conservation and scientific literacy by combining cutting edge research and outreach activities. For more information or to get involved, please visit www.rjd.miami.edu.