Making a Splash: Fin Free Cambridge
by Tim May
"There are sharks in the River Cam!"
This is ludicrous surely? Perhaps the deluded exaggeration of an over-excited tourist? Wrong! For if you cycled over 'Orgasm' bridge in October, there's a chance you were greeted by the extraordinary sight of sharks in the river below. Whizzing down the bridge at speed, you only caught a glimpse. But if you had stopped to catch your breath you would have realised your mistake...the 'sharks' are in fact people: non-other than Cambridge's newest environmental movement, 'Fin Free Cambridge'.
Who are they and what are they doing in the Cam?
I speak to the movement's founder and alleged 'fin-fighter' Louise Ruddell to find out more.
Louise, 29 is currently studying Environmental Sciences with the Open University, and I meet her (regrettably deprived of her shark outfit) in 'Lush' where she works.
So Louise, what is 'Fin Free Cambridge' all about?
Fin Free Cambridge is a grassroots community group campaigning for a ban on shark fin products, with the aim of making Cambridge the first "fin-free" city in the UK.
Shark fin products, surely this doesn't affect us in the UK?
Actually, many people in the UK wrongly believe that shark fins are illegal. This isn't true. Shark fins products are perfectly legal in the UK, and are sold by four businesses here in Cambridge.
So what's the problem with shark finning?
There are so many problems, where do I start. Research indicates that 100 million sharks killed by humans every year, and up to 73 million of these purely for their fins. Shark finning is an incredibly brutal and wasteful practice. After the fin is hacked off, the shark is often left alive. However, in order to maximise space for fins on the vessel, the body is discarded into the ocean. The finless shark is unable to move normally, and then therefore bleeds or suffocates to death.
Sharks are apex predators, which means that the species below them in the food chain are also affected by shark finning. Continuing this practice cold therefore lead to ecosystem collapse, devastating the already strained fishing industry.
Shark finning is senseless because not only are the food products relatively tasteless, but they are also detrimental to people's health. The bioaccumulation of mercury toxins in sharks has been linked to degenerative brain diseases in humans resulting in memory loss and tremors.
Where do the fins come from?
The sharks are finned from all over the world, but I think most people would be shocked to hear that it is taking place here in the UK. I once came across the body of a finned shark washed up on the beach at Brighton.
Many of the UK's smaller shark species are fished, and 50% of the UK's 21 native shark species are now listed as threatened. The UK is ranked as the world's 19th largest exporter of shark fins.
British sharks have even been illegally finned in conservation areas, such as the country's first Statutory Marine Reserve surrounding the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.
Shark finning is a British problem and whether we like it or not affects us.
Well I'm convinced, but how are you going to achieve this?
In October we handed over a petition to the city council with over 5,000 signatures, the second biggest petition ever in Cambridge. The petition demands the condemnation of the sale of shark fin products in Cambridge, and as a result the council are set meet in early February to discuss ways to achieve this.
We are hoping the council will make a strong statement making it difficult for those business currently selling shark fin products to renew their licenses.
We are also outreaching into the local community, giving talks to school clubs and Sixth forms in the hope of raising awareness. Education is vital to changing practices and sustaining long term interest.
How well has Fin Free Cambridge been received?
We have received a remarkable amount of attention, with good publicity from all the local newspapers. Interest has built on itself, and we were even mentioned 'The Ecologist'. Shark finning is a shocking issue, and I think it brings out strong responses. The key is making people aware; once people know, half the battle is already won.
What if the council fails to achieve anything? Well, if the council does not make the condemnations we had hoped for, then we will take firmer action against the businesses ourselves. Going through the council was a culturally sensitive approach, and we wanted to emphasise that Fin Free Cambridge is not anti-business. However, selling shark fins products is unacceptable and we will publically 'out' the businesses selling these products and raise a publicity campaign against what they are doing if necessary.
Once you have made Cambridge 'fin free', what's next?
After Cambridge we hope to make a wider online petition to ban shark fin products at the county level, banning shark products in all of Cambridgeshire. We also hope Cambridge will act as a model for other places to follow, and we are currently exploring the idea of a network of 'Fin Free' cities nationally. Some of our members are active in Bath, and this city will be targeted after Cambridge.
How can we help?
Well to start with, you can like our Facebook page. If we start any new petitions we will also need plenty of volunteers to collect signatures.
How does what Fin Free Cambridge is doing fit in with the international scene?
There are Fin Free groups active all over the world, and a lot has been achieved in Canada for example, 'Shark Fin Free Calgary' is particularly inspiring. Something to watch out for in March is the outcome of the CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) conference in Bangkok, where environmental pressure groups are advocating for many vulnerable shark species to be given environmental protection. CITES have not achieved much in the past, but it is hoped that something substantial will finally happen come out of this year's conference.
What advice would you give for others hoping to set up an environmental group similar to 'Fin Free Cambridge'?
Consider your approach carefully and don't go in all guns blazing, as it's easy to lose momentum this way. Take a measured approach, and looking to your local council as a useful place to start. Remember to have fun, environmentalism is not all doom and gloom. Part of making people aware is making them excited about an issue...hence the shark costumes.
Good luck to Louise, who will be the guest speaker at the Junior version of the United Nations, the MUN in March.
Fin Free Cambridge critically engages with the local public and illustrates that large NGOs are not necessarily the best way to make change happen. The small but effective splash started here in Cambridge has the potential to wash over the rest of the UK. We need more grassroots organisations like Fin Free Cambridge, they are the future.