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A Toxic Treat

Think eating shark is healthy? Think again.

Ironically, many people consume shark products – in the form of pills, powders, "health" drinks, soups, or even main courses – believing it is healthy. In fact, this misconception runs so rampant that this summer, Humana, one of the world's largest health insurance companies, actually put shark steaks on their list of recommended "healthy eats" at the infamous Taste of Chicago food festival. However, the reality is quite the opposite... shark products are incredibly unhealthy and unfit for human consumption.

Research proves shark consumption is unhealthy

Bowl of shark fin soup – sold for over $100 USD. Photo: Paul Wildman, Built by WildmanBowl of shark fin soup – sold for over $100 USD. Photo: Paul Wildman, Built by WildmanRead study after study, and you will find that there is no accepted scientific evidence that the consumption of shark products, in any form, provides any legitimate medicinal or health benefits. But a simple search on the Internet will uncover that numerous scientific studies have shown conclusively that sharks contain the highest levels of toxic mercury found in any fish. And that mercury – which is present in fins, cartilage and shark flesh – can be very hazardous to our health.

Warning labels on shark

In fact, the consumption of shark products carries warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and even New York City's Department of Health, to name but a few credible organizations.

Shark = Dangerous toxins

Indeed, a great deal of publicly available research and data exists regarding the serious health conditions associated with consumption of shark products due to the high levels of mercury and other contaminants found in the sharks' flesh. Because of these health risks, most health organizations advise that women of childbearing age and children should not consume any shark meat at all, and everyone else should limit consumption to no more than one-ounce serving per month. The Florida Department of Health goes further to warn that everyone should avoid the consumption of any sharks over 43 inches in length.

Dangerous effects of mercury

The developing brain of the human fetus is very vulnerable to mercury, so consuming shark products while pregnant can result in mental disabilities in babies. There is also an association between mercury and autism. In adults, mercury can cause damage to the central nervous system and cardiovascular system. Mercury can also lower sperm count and cause sterility among men.

Mercury poisoning our seas... and us

Fins for sale in Hong Kong.  Photo: Julie AndersenFins for sale in Hong Kong. Photo: Julie AndersenHow have our oceans and sharks become contaminated? Booming industrial practices have led to a significant increase in mercury production. While mercury has always been present in the environment thanks to natural occurrences like wildfires and volcanoes, 2/3 of the mercury in the global atmosphere are from man-made sources like coal-burning power plants and waste incinerators. This mercury is released into the air and can travel thousands of miles. In fact, 30% of the mercury deposited in the US comes from China. Mercury falls from the sky, typically through rain, and enters the oceans either directly (through precipitation) or indirectly (through run-off).

Eat sharks, eat decades of mercury

Phytoplankton (tiny organisms in the sea) absorbs the mercury and turns it into an even more dangerous form – methyl mercury. Then, through the process of biomagnification, the methyl mercury enters the food chain and becomes increasingly concentrated as it makes its way up. Phytoplankton are consumed by zooplankton, which are consumed by smaller fish, which are in turn consumed by larger fish, which are eventually consumed by the top oceanic predator, sharks. The larger the organism, the more mercury its flesh contains. As sharks can live for 50 years or more, eating many mercury-laden fish during that lifetime, they accumulate vast amounts of mercury in their bodies. And if we eat those sharks in any form – whether it is pills, powder, fins, or flesh – we eat all that mercury as well, absorbing it into our own bodies and allowing it to wreak havoc.