Friday, July 20, 2007

In honour of Shark Week

A couple of months ago I spoke with my friend Daniel from Connecticut who is, like myself, originally from Uruguay, South America. I called him to let him know that my mother would be traveling to Uruguay this month to visit her siblings. Daniel’s mother still lives in Uruguay, so whenever a member of our family travels there, I ask whether he would like to send his mother any letters, photos of the grandkids, etc., as the postal service to Uruguay is expensive, slow, and extremely unreliable. On this occasion, he asked whether I would mind sending his mom a bottle of shark cartilage pills, since they seemed to help with her arthritis. I had never heard of this product, but Daniel assured me that it could be found at any neighbourhood drugstore or supermarket.

Last month, I finally got around to buying the “shark pills” at Walgreen’s. I jokingly asked the pharmacist about the healing power of shark tissue, and to my shock and dismay, was told that the pills were actually made from shark cartilage – all along, I had naïvely assumed that the product’s name was not indicative of its true contents. When I got home, I did a little bit of research and found a few disturbing facts:

The shark cartilage pill manufacturing industry used to claim that their pills not only help with arthritic and muscular pains, but that they are also effective in treating cancer. These claims were not backed by scientific evidence of any form. Regardless, the industry mass-marketed the pills as cancer miracle cures, with a catchy but totally inaccurate slogan: “sharks don’t get cancer.” (Although cartilaginous fishes have a much lower incidence of disease than humans, sharks do, in fact, get cancer.) Eventually, the FTC stepped in and ordered the companies to stop selling shark cartilage products as cures for cancer. Once actual studies documented that shark cartilage does absolutely nothing to treat or cure cancer or any other ailment, the FDA required that a disclaimer be added to the packaging informing the consumer that the product is not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease. In spite of these setbacks, the shark cartilage industry is still obscenely successful, totaling millions of dollars in yearly sales in the US alone.

The false claims made by the shark cartilage hucksters are appalling, but they are neither the first nor last enterprise to hoodwink the consumer for their own gain. One might even say that by supplying a harmless placebo for a great deal of people, the shark cartilage industry is actually providing a valuable service. This is true, at least to the extent that the pills cause those taking them no harm, and even this claim is debatable. Unfortunately, the shark pills are exacting a steep price – not from the consumers, but from the sharks and, by extension, the marine environment.

The shark cartilage harvesting industry accounts for millions of killed sharks every year in US waters alone. Because sharks are at the apex of the predatory chain, sharp fluctuations in their numbers unfailingly reverb through the entire ocean ecosystem. For the general public, however, ignoring the senseless slaughter of millions of sharks is probably not difficult – sharks are not charismatic, and are portrayed by the popular media as dangerous and consciously evil. In reality, shark attacks claim less than 15 human lives per year, worldwide. Chances are that one is much more likely to die in a traffic accident while driving to and from the beach than from a shark attack. Chances also are that if sharks were warm, cuddly and fuzzy creatures, their needless butchery would be met with outrage, and not the current ambivalence/tacit approval.

By the same token, simply eliminating a placebo for which there is a huge public demand seems unfair. One possible solution to this conundrum is replacing shark cartilage and other ineffective homeopathic remedies with surrogate substances. What better candidates for this than invasive exotics? If the alternative medicine industry were to undertake the harvest of, say, Brazilian pepper with the same zeal that it slaughters sharks, it would not only provide a valuable service to forest ecology, but it would also mitigate the considerable expense of removing these pests – in the US, the removal of invasive exotics is estimated to cost taxpayers well over $1 billion a year.

Here in Southwest Florida, we have myriad invasive exotics. I can think of no better way to conclude this diatribe than with a few local contenders:

  • Melaleuca has easily resisted just about every plague visited upon it in an effort to eradicate it from our forests. Its remarkable resiliency can be extrapolated as a shark cartilage-like panacea.
  • The water lettuce can also be used as a generic cure-all. Potential slogan: “Water is good for you. Lettuce is good for you. Water lettuce is doubly good for you!”
  • The water hyacinth can double its population in as little as 6 days. As such, it is an obvious candidate for a fertility drug. Potential slogan: “Faster than a randy rabbit!”
  • The Japanese climbing fern can be used to treat acrophobia. Potential slogan: “Sayonara, vertigo!”
  • The Cuban tree frog’s noxious skin secretions make it unpalatable to most native predaceous birds and snakes. The paradox of treating venom with venom can be similarly applied to treat bad taste (in clothing, in behaviour, etc.) with, well, bad taste.

Viability of this tongue-in-cheek solution notwithstanding, one thing is for certain: the world’s shark populations are being devastated at an alarming pace. This trend must be reversed, and pronto.

In sharks we trust.

1 comment:

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