As Growing Demand for Squalene Leads to More Shark Deaths, Olives Offer a Solution

Olives are becoming more popular as a source of squalene in cosmetics, yet 90 percent of the industry still relies on shark liver oil resulting in 2.7 million shark deaths annually.
Grey reef shark
By Lisa Anderson
Jul. 19, 2021 09:12 UTC

The demand for squa­lene — a lipid used in cos­met­ics and vac­cines — has grown in recent years, and olives are increas­ingly being touted as a more sus­tain­able source than shark liv­ers, but cost remains a con­cern.

Olive-derived squa­lene is 30 per­cent more expen­sive than the alter­na­tive from shark liv­ers. Even with olives steadily becom­ing more pop­u­lar as a source of squa­lene in cos­met­ics, 90 per­cent of the indus­try relies on shark liver oil and is respon­si­ble for 2.7 mil­lion shark deaths annu­ally.

Squalene and its hydro­genated coun­ter­part, squalane, are used in cos­met­ics as emol­lients; and in vac­cines as adju­vants, which boost the immune sys­tem response.

See Also:Biomass from Olive Groves Fuels Heineken Factory in Southern Spain

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approx­i­mately 2,500 to 3,000 sharks are needed to har­vest one ton of squa­lene.

By con­trast, the Olive Wellness Institute esti­mates that between 77 and 1,250 tons of olive oil (depend­ing on the olive vari­ety, extrac­tion method and level of refin­ing) pos­sess the same amount of squa­lene. Extra vir­gin olive oil has the high­est lev­els of lipid of any veg­etable oil.

Although a large pro­por­tion of the shark-derived ver­sion of this lipid comes from bycatch, when sharks are unin­ten­tion­ally caught in fish­ing nets, the con­cern is that the sharks are cap­tured instead of set free due to the demand for squa­lene.

This goes unde­tected and makes it vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to estab­lish how many sharks are caught exclu­sively for squa­lene.

Late last year, with sci­en­tists rac­ing to develop a range of Covid-19 vac­cines, con­ser­va­tion­ists started express­ing con­cern about the impact on shark pop­u­la­tions as the demand for squa­lene increased.

While none of the approved Covid-19 vac­cines use shark squa­lene, five of the 300 vac­cines in devel­op­ment do.

However, envi­ron­men­tal­ists are con­cerned that if Covid-19 vac­cines con­tain­ing squa­lene are widely approved and the coro­n­avirus vac­cine becomes an annual require­ment, as some health experts pre­dict, demand for the lipid will increase.


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