Shark fin soup: A dangerous delicacy

Shark fin soup is served.  Photo via flickr, used under creative commons.

Shark fin soup is served.  Photo via flickr, used under creative commons.

I grew up in an Asian household where shark fin soup was highly regarded. I have eaten the dish at Chinese weddings and at other Chinese celebrations. I was told that it was a privilege to have shark fin soup and consuming it was very beneficial for my health. I grew up with many Chinese traditions which I did not question, solely because they have been done for hundreds of years. In my case, the horrors of shark fin soup were brought to light when I first watched Gordon Ramsay’s Shark Bait documentary.

Shark fin soup was first served to a Chinese emperor in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to show off his wealth and reputation. It became popular in subsequent dynasties and eventually became part of the Big 4 -- a set of dishes in Chinese culture that represent prosperity, health, and other honorable qualities in a traditional banquet. Nowadays, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost up to $2000.

To satisfy the increasing demand for this delicacy, shark finning has skyrocketed. Shark finning is the method of cutting off the shark’s fins while the shark is still alive. The shark is then thrown back into the ocean to suffer and experience a slow death. Some sharks die of blood loss, drowning or are eaten by other fish. Because of shark finning, many species of sharks are facing extinction. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), all species of sharks involved in the shark fin trade have experienced population declines of 90-99% in the past few years.

The marine ecosystem is significantly altered by the loss of sharks. Many sharks are keystone species, which play important roles in keeping the ecosystem balanced. When a keystone species such as the tiger shark is removed from the ecosystem, a ripple effect occurs. For example, there was a decline in different species of sharks from 1997-2005, which in turn increased prey populations like rays and skates. The rays and skates consequently ate enough mollusks to put an end to the Californian scallop industry.

So what can we do to put a stop to shark finning? If you ask anyone who has eaten shark fin soup to describe what shark fin tastes like, they will answer “it has none.” Shark fin soup is prepared with chicken and ham broth, the shark fin provides texture. Alternatives for shark fin have recently surfaced such as mushrooms and vermicelli.

Public protests and documentaries like Shark Water address what happens behind-the-scenes of shark finning. People have started boycotting shark fin soup in Chinese restaurants, and some restaurants are taking the soup off their menus.

Shark fin soup is a Chinese tradition, a tradition no one fought against for many centuries until now. Just because something is a tradition does not mean that it is the right thing to do. Although we are expected to respectfully follow cultural customs, we must also think critically and question these traditions, and consider ways to keep the meaning of the tradition while evolving some aspects of them so they align with our values and modern life.