x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Some fin fishy about this tale

The Life: Should companies think twice before selling products which are legal but seen to be ethically questionable? Perhaps, say some, because sustainability is not only good for the planet, it can also improve profits.

Promoting shark cartilage as a cancer cure, despite a lack of scientific evidence, fuels the slaughter of sharks according to marine experts. Getty Images
Promoting shark cartilage as a cancer cure, despite a lack of scientific evidence, fuels the slaughter of sharks according to marine experts. Getty Images

A tourist in Thailand made headlines around the world after a making a trip to a pharmacy in 2009.

The shop, which was operating under the Boots brand, was selling shark cartilage supplements, which the tourist thought were ethically questionable.

She complained and Boots Retail Thailand released a statement acknowledging "some customers may have concerns" about the product. The Boots branded supplements were duly removed from the shelves.

But Boots stores are still selling shark cartilage supplements in the UAE. At least two branches, both of which are in Abu Dhabi, have stocked the supplements, which are not under the chain's brand. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Boots is not alone. Shark cartilage supplements are readily available online from UAE websites. But if it is not against the law, what is the problem? And why should Boots and other companies care what people think?

The supplements do not make any claim to be produced using sustainable methods.

Instead, the label says the ingredients are "sourced from species around the world" - which is the first problem, according to Keith Wilson, the marine programme director at the environemental protection organisation Emirates Marine Environmental Group.

"Sharks, some of the bigger ones, have very slow reproductive rates and they are being fished far, far too heavily," he says.

The supplements have been marketed as a cancer treatment since the release of a 1992 book Sharks Don't Get Cancer, despite the claims being dismissed by some.

They include Gary Ostrander, the vice chancellor for research and graduate education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"Crude shark cartilage is marketed as a cancer cure on the premise that sharks don't get cancer.

"That's not true and the fact that people believe it is is an illustration of just how harmful the public's irrationality can be," wrote Mr Ostrander in a 2004 paper entitled Shark Cartilage, Cancer and the Growing Threat of Pseudoscience.

The paper, according to the website Science Daily, outlines more than 40 examples of tumours found in sharks and related species dating back to the mid-1800s.

But since shark cartilage has been promoted as a cancer cure, "there has been a measurable decline in shark populations" and cancer patients have been diverted from more effective treatments, Science Daily quoted Mr Ostrander as saying in the report.

And there is reason to believe shark cartilage may do people harm.

"Sharks accumulate a lot of mercury and other heavy metals because they are a top predator. These things accumulate up the food chain so, in all likelihood, they're probably not that healthy unless they're sourced from rapidly growing cartilage," adds Mr Wilson.

Selling products such as shark cartilage also fuels the "mass slaughter of sharks", according to the shark expert Mark Rutzen, who free dives with great whites.

"We would like to see governments start utilising the resources sustainably," he says.

"It is very simple. No sharks, no biodiversity, no humans. It is high time we find out what these systems do for us."

Sharad Agarwal, a Dubai businessman who set up go-green.ae to promote sustainable behaviour and shopping habits, says it is the moral responsibility of all manufacturers to produce products that are good for the planet.

And he believes selling products seen to be sustainable creates a "higher value perception" in the minds of increasingly eco-conscious consumers.

"Therefore, companies that follow a sound sustainability practice will be more competitive and will, as a result, attract better investors, employment talent and supply-chain partners, as well as customers," adds Mr Agarwal.

gduncan@thenational.ae