Le Canard Noir is a diving duck and has just come back from a diving holiday. Most divers I meet have developed a special sense of awareness of the fragility of the underwater environment and many of my scuba friends are involved with conservation projects. We see things non-divers do not: damaged reefs, bleached reefs, discarded nets, rubbish, hooks in fish, and disturbingly, we see no sharks. In years of diving the Med, I have never seen a shark. I have seen multitudes of sharks elsewhere, but never in the Med. Shark numbers are in decline.
All my diving friends, who have encountered sharks, have similar tales about their first shark dive. They do not report feeling afraid, just awe. Regardless of prior apprehension or fear, every first time shark diver swims towards them, not away. Something strange happens. After that first sharp intake of breath, you quickly want to experience them to the full and fill yourself with this fleeting moment. They are beautiful creatures that make a diving trip in a way that no other creature does. You talk about nothing else in the bar, afterwards. In the diver magazines causes of diver deaths are often reported and I have never seen a death or injury by shark. It just does not happen. Scuba deaths are overwhelmingly caused by ignoring, or diving beyond, your training.
Conversely, millions of sharks are killed by humans every year and their long maturation and gestation periods make them particularly vulnerable to over fishing. Unlike bony fish, blue sharks vivipariously give birth to a low number of young and take a long time doing it, and demand for shark products is growing, raising serious questions about their future in the hands of the terrifying marine predator known as the human.
And so it comes as no surprise to see a letter in this month’s Diver magazine about Holland and Barret selling shark cartilage food supplements. Sue Wright of Bradford wrote a letter headed “Pills make me see red” and continued,
I recently visited a Holland and Barrett and was disgusted to see shark’s cartilage tablets on sale… I later emailed the company, which replied saying that it sold ‘loads’ of the tablet, and apologies for upsetting me. They had not just upset me, they had really angered me!
I looked online to see why anyone would buy these tablets. They seam to be aimed at three illnesses – arthritis, cancer and fibromyalgia – bit as far as I can see, it is only the maker that recommends them.
Holland and Barrett replied to Diver enquiries,
We take the threat and welfare to endangered species very seriously and would not be selling any product that contained a by-product of an endangered species of shark. … our product … is a by product of the blue-shark which we are assured is not an endangered species.
Shark cartilage is a hugely popular dietary supplement used by thousands of our customers. Customers say it benefits their health with ailments such as arthritis. There is also clinical evidence that backs up such claims…
Holland and Barrett will continue to sell shark cartilage due to popular demand, until such time that the species is classed as endangered.
Let’s take that apart. What are Holland and Barrett really saying?
Holland and Barrett will of course support banal platitudes about green issues and saving the planet. Our actions are of course different. Someone has told us that fishing for sharks is OK, probably our suppliers.
We sell shed loads of these pills and will continue to do so while our clueless customers continue to believe the nonsense on the web about the magical properties of shark cartilage. Sharks never get cancer, don’t you know? We read it on Wikipedia.
As Holland and Barret is owned by one of the largest American pharmaceutical companies, we will continue exercise our inalienable rights to make shed loads of money regardless of what you think, and to flog this stuff as long as it is legal, the customers remain gullible, and we can source the raw materials.
So, does Holland and Barrett’s defence add up? Do they sell endangered species by-products? The difficulty with sharks is that so little is known about them. We just do not know enough to fully understand the impact of fishing 10-20 million blue shark individuals. The World Conservation Union, a Swiss-based conservation body, consider the blue shark to be “Near Threatened” and is on their ‘red list‘. So whilst, Holland and Barrett may be technically correct, what are they doing about their trade to ensure that the blue shark retains viable numbers? Uncertainty in understanding how fishing impacts this species should encourage us to be cautious for using this species for trivial uses.
And is the use of shark cartilage trivial? Do these supplements do anything? Again, as with most CAM, the stories about shark cartilage appear to be just that – stories. Sharks do get cancer. Gary K. Ostrander et al report in Cancer Research that “justifications for using shark cartilage are illogical extensions of the finding of antiangiogenic and anti-invasive substances in cartilage”.
The claims that sharks do not, or rarely, get cancer was originally argued by I. William Lane in a book entitled “Sharks Don’t Get Cancer” in 1992, publicized in “60 Minutes” television segments in 1993, and reargued in another book in 1996. The titles of the books do not match their texts in which the authors note that sharks actually get cancer but claim incorrectly that sharks rarely get cancer. We make three main points below: (a) sharks do get cancer; (b) the rate of shark cancer is not known from present data; and (c) even if the incidence of shark cancer were low, cancer incidence is irrelevant to the use of crude [shark] extracts for cancer treatment.
As for other claims of healing benefits from shark cartilage, it is worth noting that there are other, far cheaper and more environmentally friendly sources of cartilage that could be used. Pig’s ears spring to mind. I speculate that this might be somewhat harder to market in your local high street, even if it were effective – which it isn’t. Holland and Barrett fail to give references for their ‘clinical evidence’. There is no good evidence – at best, just some speculative test tube experiments.
It is difficult to think of another shop on the high street where the vast majority of their products do absolutely nothing and are based on nothing but delusions. Holland and Barrett are leaches on our culture of distrust in science and medicine and prey on people who ‘like to to take control of their health’. This story exposes the myths of alternative health care being green and caring, about small alternative health businesses versus ‘Big Pharma’, and enabling people to manage their own illnesses. Shark cartilage is sold by a billion dollar US based pharmaceutical company, NBTY (owners of Holland and Barrett and GNC), with no good evidence of effectiveness and who in doing so, threaten vulnerable species. On top of this, the Food Standards Agency have issued warnings about US imported shark cartilage pills being a source of salmonella. NBTY issued a recall on their shark products earlier in the year.
Some conservation organisations are on the case. Bite-Back, a shark and marine conservation body, have a ready made web form for you to sign and send to Holland and Barrett expressing your concern. Why not give it a go?
More campaigns and info on sharks and overfishing here…