By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Certain restaurants in Hawaii are serving their last bowls of shark fin soup due to a newly enacted law, which requires restaurants to cook or dispose of their shark fin inventory. Shark fin soup, a Chinese dish once reserved for emperors, is now commonly eaten at weddings and ceremonies. Shark fin is cooked in a flavorful broth and served with strands of the fin mixed into a soup or with the entire fin intact. Prices can range anywhere from $10 to $100 per bowl.
Food of the emperors
“Shark fin soup was a treat growing up. We’d order it at restaurants when we were lucky enough to encounter it on a menu. It was infrequent. I remember enjoying the soup and recognizing that it was ‘special’ to be able to have it,” said Hsiao-Ching Chou, aa Chinese American and former food editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“The shark fin itself is more texture than flavor. The soup, if made right, is flavorful, even if the star ingredient doesn’t have much inherent flavor. The soup itself always reminded me of a richer egg drop soup containing gelatinous shreds of shark fin.”
Fins, prized for their scarcity, serve as a status symbol for the host. Traditionally, families would lose face if the soup wasn’t served at weddings. Similarly, chances of securing business deals could be jeopardized if the soup wasn’t served at business luncheons. For older generations, shark fin soup can also be a long awaited symbol of success and prosperity.
While demand for fins is highest in Hong Kong, China, and other Asian countries, shark fins are acquired and traded worldwide, including the United States. The rise of the middle class in China has also caused the rise in demand.
“You have a massive middle class in China. They woke up. They discovered Gucci and Prada and shark fin soup,” said Sue Chen, president and board chair of Reef Check and member of the Shark Savers board of directors. “That’s great for Gucci. They’re selling a lot more bags in China. But it’s not good for sharks.”
Washington tackles the demand
Chen started diving six years ago and encountered her first shark on a dive. She soon learned that such encounters were incredibly rare.
According to the Pew Environment Group, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the global shark fin industry. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that a third of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction. Chen, a full-time business-owner, decided to join efforts with activists to educate people about sharks.
Following Hawaii’s lead, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands passed laws to prohibit shark fin trade. Similar legislation banning the possession and distribution of shark fin was introduced in California to combat the source of large shark fin demand.
“With the demand as it is in California and the legislation moving forward there, it is critical that Oregon and Washington pass similar laws …” said State Sen. Kevin Ranker.
Ranker co-sponsored the bill. It passed unanimously out of the Senate and will head to the House of Representatives for further consideration. The Washington state bill prohibits all commercial sale, trade, or purchase of shark fins, including selling the product in restaurants. The Oregon legislature is considering a similar bill.
Ranker states the bill will limit the demand for shark fin and will work in tandem with the federal Shark Conservation Act passed in January 2011 — requiring sharks be brought to port with fins attached and prohibiting boats from carrying shark fins without the corresponding number and weight of shark carcasses — to discourage finning for commercial purposes.
While some countries are known to eat shark meat, the demand for meat did not match the international demand for shark fin. The demand led to increased finning, the act of cutting off the fins of sharks caught on the line or as bycatch. The finless sharks, often still alive, are tossed, where they die from suffocation, blood loss, or predation by other species.
California Sen. Leland Yee, who has fought other bills prohibiting live reptiles to be sold at markets and restrictions on roast duck and rice products, calls a state ban on commercial fin trade is too extreme. Yee asks for a moderate approach that allows the preservation of the traditional dish.
“I would support a bill that bans imported fins, takes the federal ban on finning, and makes it a state law [that includes] huge fines to serve as a deterrent and to incentivize our fish and game wardens. [I would also support a] ban on killing any endangered shark species, and allow non-endangered fins to be brought on shore or raised in a sustainable farm,” said Yee.
The proposed ban on shark fin trade in California drew emotional reactions from the Chinese. Some feel that the law unfairly targets ethnic cuisine. Others insist that concern for sustainability should take an equally critical look at proteins and seafood more commonly eaten in Western cultures.
“Certainly, since I moved to Seattle in 2000 and established myself as a food writer at the Seattle P-I, I’ve learned more about sustainability issues. I would not order shark fin soup now, but legislating a ban is a tough call when a dish is so ingrained in a culture. I think about the Makah tribe and their whale hunts. We, as non-Native Americans, are appalled that they would hunt a whale. But who are we to judge a native tradition?” said Chou, referring to the Makah’s annual whaling expeditions that draw criticism from animal rights activists and conservationists.
You are what you don’t eat?
“I don’t think it’s an Asian issue; I think it’s an education issue,” said Chen, who believes that when given the facts, most would agree to give up shark fin soup. Films like “Jaws” and an unwarranted fear of shark attacks have made the public less sympathetic to the plight of sharks, said Chen.
“I have spent hundreds of hours in water swimming with sharks and sometimes forget that people are afraid of them,” said Eric Cheng, an award-winning underwater photographer and member of Shark Savers board of directors. “Sharks are incredible predators, so the fear is somewhat understandable, but the vast majority of sharks have evolved to be fish eaters. These sharks are much more likely to be afraid of you than they are to get anywhere near you.”
The shark’s role as an apex predator means serious consequences will follow when shark population are wiped out, said Cheng. Sharks prey on sick or slow fish, thereby regulating the intricate food web and sensitive ecosystem. Unlike certain fish, sharks are not easily farmed or bred, and they take longer to mature. Their decline could cause the entire system to collapse, according to multiple studies. But consuming shark fin is not just unhealthy for sharks. The FDA lists sharks among the fish with the highest mercury content.
“As a proud Asian, it would be quite embarrassing when sharks go extinct. The world would say, ‘They were decimated because of a soup that Asians love so much,’ ” said Chen. “How would the world view Asians? It would be such a drastic contradiction from what is truly beautiful about Asian culture, which is harmony, modesty, accountability, and responsibility.”
The last bowl
Activists hope further awareness will lessen public demand for the soup, but those whose pocketbooks are directly affected — restaurant owners, fishermen, and dried seafood purveyors — are harder to convince.
“Local Chinese restaurants often say that they wouldn’t mind removing shark fin soup from their menu, but only if all other restaurants do. If only one restaurant removes it, it puts them at a potential disadvantage in the marketplace because there is still demand for the product,” said Cheng.
A disheartened dried seafood purveyor in San Francisco expressed concern that a ban on shark fin means that fish maw could be next. Fish maw and shark fin (along with abalone and sea cucumber) are among the four high-priced, treasured delicacies in Chinese cuisine, with shark fin in particular invoking a sense of pride, honor, celebration, and luxury.
However, many pro-ban advocates have argued that cultures are meant to evolve, rightfully phasing out a long list of traditions including foot binding or slavery. If they get their way, the last bowl of shark fin soup will soon be on that list. ♦
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Some follow-up info from Oceana:
Washington House of Representatives passed a bill to protect sharks and ocean ecosystems by an overwhelming 95-1 vote on 4/5. This bill aims to protect shark populations by banning the illegal trade of shark fins in Washington.