If you are a cat or dog owner you may know that shark cartilage is being marketed and sold as a dietary supplement for pets. Sharks do not have bones, instead they have cartilage, and the claim is that shark cartilage supports joint function and relieves inflammation and stiffness. Cartilage supplements have been available for years for humans, but the market for the equivalent product for cats and dogs seems to be growing, particularly in North America and Europe. People don’t like to see their pets suffering, so they see a product which says that it will improve their animal’s well-being, and they buy it.
But the truth is that there is very little substance to the beneficial effects claimed by the merchants and manufacturers of these products, on either pets or humans. In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority concluded “that no studies have been presented investigating the effects of shark cartilage or of shark cartilage derivatives onmaintenance of normal joints in humans.” One difficulty in verifying health claims is that shark cartilage is processed in different ways and sold in different forms. It is also sourced from different species of sharks of different ages caught in different locations. Amounts of the substances alledged to improve joint health will vary from one species to another. It is important to remember that these products cannot legally be marketed or sold as medicines; there is no measurement or control of “active” ingredients. They are sold as dietary supplements, and sales are made by riding on the hopes and prayers of people concerned with their own health and the health of their pets.
Even if there were health benefits, is it right to slaughter sharks – many of which are endangered – so that our animals can live more comfortably for another year or two?
More importantly, what are these powders, pills and capsules actually made of? What species of sharks are being used? Where are they being caught? The consumer has the right to know these things in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to buy. (Incidentally, the same is true for any product, surely we have the right to know what we are buying, how and where it was sourced and manufactured?)
If anyone knows the answers to these questions, you’d think it would be the stores that are selling them. Well, that’s what you might think, but it seems that they don’t know any better than the rest of us. Eight different sellers of shark cartilage for pets were contacted, asking for information about what species of sharks were used in their products. Five didn’t bother to reply. Three did.
KV Supply referred me to the manufacturer of the “Sea Pet” shark cartilage capsules they sell, Sea Starr Animal Health. Sea Starr Animal Health said that they didn’t know what types of sharks were used either, and that they would contact the supplier of the shark cartilage powder. But apparently they did know enough about the powder to claim that the sharks are “harvested and processed here in the US”. A follow-up email was received which listed the following types of sharks that could be found in the product: dogfish shark, bull shark (Near Threatened accordin to the IUCN Red List), blue shark (Near Threatened), nurse shark (Western Atlantic population is assessed as Near Threatened), blacktip shark (Near Threatened), reef shark (Near Threatened) and thresher shark (vulnerable). Apparently the types of sharks used in the product can vary according to the time of year. The company was also at pains to point out that “Finning does not provide any material at all for the shark cartilage industry.” Which begs the question, what happens to the fins? Well, fins are cartilage, so either they are included in the shark cartilage capsules (although they have not been obtained by actually finning the shark while it was alive) or they are sold to be used in shark fin soup. The idea that the most economically valuable part of the shark would be discarded is fanciful.
The second company that replied was Wholistic Pet Organics. They said that “All of the sharks used for our shark cartilage powder are sourced from New Zealand through legal fishing practices used for human consumption.” But they still didn’t specify what types of sharks are used. In a follow-up email, the CEO John Phillips, Jr, said “the shark is a byproduct of the legal fishing industry and they are not caught intentionally or by any specific species.” Even that sidestepped the question of what types of sharks are being used.
The last company to reply was Twinlab. Their reply was least helpful of all: “Our supplier collects shark cartilage from the fishing industry and can’t specify. It is not a requirement to collect certain species.” So they freely admit that they will use any type of shark that happens to get caught.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the indiscriminate destruction going on in the oceans will be extremely dissatisfied with the level of feedback from these companies. Expecting people to be satisfied with a description of a product as “legal” is frankly insulting. The truth about what is happening here is that sharks (as well as many other marine animals) are being caught in vast numbers – sometimes as bycatch (which is conveniently passed off as “unavoidable”), sometimes as the target catch, but often in a murky zone somewhere in the middle. When money is made off bycatch, the incentive to try to avoid catching it disappears. Let’s be clear about what bycatch is, and the scale of it: Bycatch is so-called unwanted catch, and is responsible for the deaths of millions upon millions of marines creatures every year. It is impossible to know the true number, as proper monitoring does not take place – the fishing industry would prefer that nobody knew. What we do know is that bycatch of sharks is often greater than the catch of the target species.
It seems nobody really knows what goes into shark cartilage products. And the sellers and manufacturers don’t have a vested interest in finding out, let alone in letting customers know. They would rather we didn’t ask – and if we do ask they would prefer to fob us off with stock replies using terms such as “legal” (legal? surely that’s the least we can expect!), “byproduct” and “sustainable”.
Would these sharks still have been killed if they weren’t used in shark cartilage products? Probably. But buying shark products only increases the economic incentive to keep on catching them, and to delay or avoid additional measures to decrease bycatch. On the other hand we should also remember that unless we are very careful about where we buy our fish, sharks and other marine animals are very likely have been caught as bycatch in the process. We should all demand more information from suppliers about where the fish was caught, how it was caught and what fishing methods were used. If poor quality information is provided we need to assume the worst and not buy it.
The companies contacted were:
Wholistic Pet Organics
Longlife Pet Supplements.com
Mountain Naturals of Vermont
KV Supply (referred to Sea Starr Animal Health)