Demand for cartilage to treat cancer threatens West Coast sharks

March 29, 1994|By San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's coastal sharks could soon face the kind of devastating fishing pressure that has nearly wiped out their cousins along the Atlantic seaboard, a spokesman for the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation has warned.

According to Sean Van Sommeran, the threat to the sharks comes from East Coast commercial interests that will pay top dollar for shark cartilage -- touted in recent years as a cure for certain kinds of cancer.

Mr. Van Sommeran said he learned of it from a chance phone call he received from a shark cartilage wholesaler looking for help in lining up local commercial fishermen.

He identified the dealer as Kenneth Absher, an optometrist and nutritionist from the Northern California community of Grass Valley.

"He thought we were fisheries consultants, but we're actually a shark research and conservation group," Mr. Van Sommeran said. "I became very concerned when I heard about his plans."

Mr. Van Sommeran said that East Coast supplies of shark cartilage have dried up in the last several months because of strict shark catch quotas imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"There are 22 species of sharks in U.S. Atlantic waters, and virtually all of them have been overfished for meat, fins [used by Asians for soup] and now cartilage," said Mr. Van Sommeran. "The anecdotal evidence of massive decline is overwhelming."

Mr. Van Sommeran said Mr. Absher told him he hoped to fish West Coast sharks to make up for the shortfall in Atlantic Coast cartilage.

"He said he needed tens of tons of the stuff," Mr. Van Sommeran said. "There's no quota on West Coast sharks yet, but they're already depleted. Basking sharks -- the second largest fish in the world -- are down to 10 percent of historic levels. Soupfin sharks have almost disappeared. Thresher sharks are very rare -- they routinely went 1,000 pounds, now a 200-pound thresher is a big fish. Blue sharks used to be everywhere, now you have to really work to find them."

Mr. Absher defended both the therapeutic value of shark cartilage and his attempts to develop West Coast sources for the product.

"We have a couple hundred testimonial letters and considerable scientific evidence that supports the value of shark cartilage," said Mr. Absher. "Also, our demand for shark cartilage will probably be temporary. Other cartilages seem to be as effective. We'll probably be processing livestock cartilage in the not-so-distant future." Monterey Bay commercial fishermen already have caught wind of the cartilage inquiries, and are excited at the prospect of a new shark fishery, according to Mr. Van Sommeran, a former commercial fisherman.

"The salmon and albacore have been wiped out so sharks are about the only pelagic fish left out there," Mr. Van Sommeran said.

Because sharks seldom get tumors, derivatives obtained from their cartilage have been promoted as cancer panaceas.

Most scientists, however, say the claims relating to shark cartilage are hyperbolic at best and dishonest at worse.

No applications for the approval of shark cartilage as a cancer remedy have been made to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"We have no evidence that it's either safe or effective," said Janet McDonald, a spokeswoman for the agency. "Right now, it's in the quackery area. There could be some legitimate good to it, but it's being promoted like snake oil. My guess is that a lot of the stuff now on the market has never even seen a shark."

Ms. McDonald said that the National Institutes of Health has declined to investigate shark cartilage, saying it was a waste of public funds.

Regardless of the true efficacy of shark cartilage in reducing tumors, the mere promise of a cure has set off an unprecedented high seas hunt for sharks of all varieties.

In an attempt to resuscitate the dwindling stocks of Atlantic sharks, the National Marine Fisheries Service imposed stringent quotas on sharks along the East and Gulf coasts on July 31, 1993.

The strictures seem to be working, said Michael Justen of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who drafted the quota plan.

"We don't really have a plan for the management of West Coast sharks yet, though," said Mr. Justen. "A lot of fishing pressure for cartilage could hammer Pacific blue and thresher sharks. On the one hand, the Pacific Ocean is a big place. But on the other hand, sharks are slow to reach maturity and they're not particularly fecund. They're definitely vulnerable to exploitation."

Gilbert Van Dykhuizen, a research biologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said an ambitious shark fishery could be "devastating" to West Coast shark populations.

"We're behind the Atlantic Coast on protection," said Mr. Van Dykhuizen.

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