Did you know that a compound taken from sharks is currently used in COVID-19 vaccine testing as well as many other products? The ingredients that companies use in their products are wide-ranging, from chemical compounds that are difficult to pronounce to organic herbs. Many ingredients may simply be strange, but some are also unsustainable and harmful to wildlife. One such ingredient is called “squalene,” which is an oily liquid typically derived from shark livers. The shark squalene industry is a threat to already declining shark populations, involves an unsustainable supply chain, and results in misleading product labeling. Here is what you need to know.
Squalene (C30H50) is a natural oil produced by sharks and many other organisms (including humans) which has moisturizing, antioxidative, and antimicrobial properties. As a result, squalene is commonly used in a wide variety of products, from vaccines and supplements to cosmetics. The vast size of the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries creates a huge demand for squalene, with a long history of sharks as the leading source for the squalene market.
While there are other sources for squalene, such as plants (e.g., olives), squalene extraction from sharks obtained through shark fishing is a seemingly low-cost and easy process, which is why it has been the most common method used to obtain squalene. Additionally, shark livers are one of the highest-yielding squalene sources.
The catch (no pun intended) is that to obtain squalene from sharks, they must be killed so the squalene can be extracted from their livers. Once the liver oil is obtained, high heat and pressure in a vacuum can produce squalene at a high purity. Squalene must be continually produced to meet the global demand as it has a shelf life of only about 2 years before it expires.
Although the squalene market is not the leading driver of shark population decline, it promotes the killing of sharks for their body parts and normalizes the use of shark-derived squalene by including it in commonly used products that are often inseparable from humanity (e.g., vaccines and cosmetics).
Of the approximately 100 million sharks that are killed annually, over three million are targeted for the liver oil market alone. While this may represent only a fraction of the number of sharks killed each year, it does not make the number insignificant. As you may know, sharks are incredibly important to their ecosystem. They eat weak and sick marine life to promote healthy marine populations, maintain balance in food webs, play an important role in cultures around the world, and benefit human livelihoods through ecotourism and fishing.
As a result, any number of sharks killed is detrimental to shark populations and the marine ecosystem. Sharks grow slowly, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and typically have very few offspring. This is true for most sharks of all habitats, including deep-sea sharks, who are common victims of the squalene market due to their relatively large livers which contain high quantities of squalene. Exploiting sharks for squalene is unsustainable from both ecological and economic perspectives.
Squalene Supply Chain Issues
The squalene market has a very enigmatic supply chain. Usually, once shark squalene reaches product manufacturers or is already in a product, it is nearly impossible to determine which shark species was killed and from where it was sourced to produce that batch of squalene. As a result, the squalene may have been obtained illegally from protected shark species, which is also a legal issue for squalene producers and should be an issue considered by the product manufacturers. Squalene producers often offer little transparency as to which shark species were killed to obtain the squalene. All shark squalene is chemically identical. Therefore, the appearance of shark squalene does not provide information about the shark species or whether the squalene was legally obtained. Some form of proof should be required to know the source of shark squalene.
This proof could potentially come from fisheries reports, but fish landings are notoriously underreported, which makes the supply chain even murkier. Another method that could be used to determine the types of shark species killed to produce shark squalene is DNA testing. However, testing shark squalene for DNA may be very difficult or impossible. DNA breaks down at 190 °C or above, but shark liver oil must be heated to 200-230 °C to create squalene. This could erase any evidence of the shark species used to create the squalene.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an “international agreement between governments” that aims to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species”. 183 countries have taken part in this accord, but only 12 shark species are included in the CITES appendices. Sadly, CITES does not stop sharks from being caught, but simply controls the trade of certain threatened shark species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, 153 shark species are either Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable, and another 82 are Data Deficient, meaning the status of their populations is unknown. Despite this large number of threatened species, CITES only protects 12. Some countries have enacted laws protecting threatened shark species, but the protection ends at the borders and is only as good as the enforcement of the laws. Furthermore, it’s not always easy for local authorities to ascertain where the sharks were caught, especially when close to marine borders, which makes enforcement difficult. Once shark squalene is used to create a product, there is an entirely new challenge for consumers to grapple with: ingredient labeling.
Labeling: the good and the bad
Have you ever found yourself reading product labels before making a purchase? This is a great practice, but strange chemical compounds and other ingredients typically absent from everyday language may affect the transparency of ingredients in products that you use. The same goes for squalene. If you find squalene in the ingredient list of your favorite lipstick or sunscreen, for example, chances are that the source of the squalene is not listed. This means that for the consumer, it is not easy to know if the squalene was harvested sustainably, came from non-threatened shark species, or was non-shark-derived. The same goes for “squalane,” the hydrogenated form of squalene, which does not necessarily represent squalene from a non-shark-derived source.
The labeling problem with squalene is further exacerbated with products that have a “Cruelty-Free” label. If a “Cruelty-Free” product contains squalene, this ingredient could still be from sharks. The definition for “Cruelty-Free” varies but is often used to describe products that have been created and tested without animal experimentation. This does not reflect products with ingredients that have been obtained in an animal-safe manner, which is an issue because the practice of harvesting sharks for their squalene, or any part of the body for that matter, is not cruelty-free. This also misleads the consumer because it does not reflect the truth of how some of the ingredients such as squalene were obtained. To top it all off, the Leaping Bunny “Cruelty-Free” Certification and PETA’s vegan certification are the only two regulated seals, meaning that every other similar label is purely marketing with little to no verification.
These labeling issues are slowly being repaired through consumer awareness as well as work by various organizations to create new labels and certify that products are in fact cruelty-free and animal-free. Shark Allies, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to the protection of sharks and rays, has recently created a “Shark Free” label to help consumers find products that are free of shark-based ingredients, including shark liver oil and squalene. They have also created a “Shark Safe” label for products that aren’t shark-free but are obtained safely and sustainably, such as products with fossilized shark teeth. Five companies are already using one of these two labels and progress is slowly being made to raise public awareness on the importance of sharks, help consumers be mindful of products containing shark-derived ingredients, and require or at least encourage more transparency in product labeling.
The Current State of Squalene
Now that I have inundated you with somewhat disheartening information, you can see that there are clearly several issues with the squalene industry. The good news is that efforts to phase out the production and use of shark squalene are underway.
Research has identified that squalene can be produced from plants, algae, bacteria, and yeasts, some of which are cost-effective and can produce at least as much squalene as sharks.
Non-shark-derived squalene is just as effective as shark squalene in products such as vaccines and numerous companies are using non-shark-derived squalene in cosmetics and a few in vaccine development.
This article was first published by OneGreenPlanet on 25 April 2021. Lead Image Source: KellyoftheWild.
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