Conservationists have launched a shark-saving campaign in the Caribbean country of Trinidad & Tobago, trying to stop locals and tourists from eating a popular delicacy: deep-fried shark sandwiches.
Many have long considered "bake & shark" sandwiches to be an essential part of a visit to Trinidad's popular Maracas beach, a white-sand strip lined with shacks serving fried juvenile shark and bread smothered in a variety of toppings such as mango chutney and tamarind sauce.
But the local Papa Bois Conservation group is now pushing for a ban on the catch and trade of the marine predators to help protect a fast-dwindling population. It started its campaign during Trinidad's famed Carnival celebrations, which ended at midnight. Supporters have rallied on the traffic-jammed road to Maracas carrying placards made in the shape of sharks with messages like "Save our sharks, save our oceans."
Group director Marc de Verteuil acknowledged that the sandwiches are something "Trinidadians are very proud of; it is practically a national dish. But at the same time, most people simply don't understand that sharks are in crisis."
Researchers with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature say one-quarter of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
De Verteuil said overfishing in local waters has gotten so bad that much of the shark meat may now be imported. Shark fillets are also sold in supermarkets and upscale restaurants here, and environmentalists say the waters of the small twin-island country of 1.3 million people also play an outsized role in supplying shark fins for a soup popular in China.
The most recent data collected from the Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong, a major global trade hub for shark fin, ranked Trinidad & Tobago as the world's sixth biggest fin exporter to the Asian city. Much of the 332,396 kilograms (732,808 pounds) of shark fin exported from Trinidad to Hong Kong in 2011 were from creatures caught as by-catch by international fishing boats in the Atlantic. When the fleet of mostly Asian long-liners arrives in Trinidad's waters with Atlantic-caught shark, they can land it at a Trinidad free zone and then export the fins to Hong Kong.
"If local consumption and exports can be reduced or prohibited, Trinidad has an opportunity to be part of the solution in protecting these endangered species," Imogen Zethoven, director of Global Shark Conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts, said in an email from Washington.
Papa Bois says it plans to lobby the government to make the country's waters a shark sanctuary, like the Caribbean nation of the Bahamas did in 2011, and ban the landing of any shark products. It will also go to schools to teach youngsters that the top predators play a huge role in keeping oceans healthy and are not the insatiable human-killing machines portrayed in movies like "Jaws."
But Tracy Whiskey, who works at Patsy's Bake & Shark, a restaurant started by her mother nearly 40 years ago, said she thinks the call for people to stop eating shark sandwiches is encroaching on local culture.
"It's unfair because people have been eating this and loving it for a long time," she said by telephone from the restaurant. "Bake & shark is one of the main meals here."