Sharks as Biofuel: Another Milestone to Extinction?

Posted on April 25, 2011
Written by: Mary Chipman

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Several news items about the feasibility of using sharks for biofuel have popped up recently, one targeting the little-known Greenland shark, and more recently, a project initiated by fishing industry research groups and companies from Vigo, Spain.1

The Vigo process involves chemically extracting oil from mako shark livers for use as biofuel for longline fishing vessels. The companies involved estimate that the possible savings from a shark liver biofuel may range between 5 and 7 percent. These numbers are not stated in relation to the specific costs involved, the proportion of shark biofuel to regular fuel, or the quantity of fuel consumed per voyage. If a mako shark weighing 70 kilos (154 pounds) has a liver weighing 5 kilos (11 pounds), then it will yield approximately 3.5 liters or just under a gallon of oil.

Even a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis of these incomplete figures shows that the benefit is minimal and accrues only to vessels equipped to process the shark biofuel. The unstated assumption behind the figures put forth is that sharks are a renewable resource or readily available resource.

They are far from it. Sharks are already being fished out of our oceans on a staggering scale for the shark fin soup trade and as bycatch. Mako sharks are threatened, and Greenland sharks near-threatened, according to the IUCN’s Red List.

You can't farm sharks and harvest them like corn. Sharks mature slowly, and like many species, cannot thrive in a crowded pen. No shark species can reproduce fast enough or is available in sufficient numbers for shark liver biofuel to become a viable, long-term economic option. 

History should have taught us that the unfettered harvesting of marine animals for their oil leads inevitably down the path of extinction, as the whaling industry demonstrated in the 19th century. Even if the argument could be made that the rest of the shark was used for food, or that it was bycatch and was going to be thrown out anyway, it's doubtful if sharks could survive yet another economic incentive to harvest them. The kind of overfishing that could occur if the technology for turning sharks into biofuel becomes economically feasible is depressing to contemplate.

The event that saved whales from extinction was when they were replaced by electricity as an energy source (whale oil was used for lamps). It would be cruelly ironic if the act that hastened the extinction of sharks was their use as an energy source.

Mary Chipman
Contributing Editor

Resources

1. The Institute of Marine Research (IIM), the Cooperative of Shipowners of the Port of Vigo (Arvi), the Department of Applied Physics, the University of Vigo, and the companies Xenotechs and Mecanasa.

2. Data from FIS World News.

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