Conservationists are hoping the Year of the Dragon is the last time shark fin soup is ladled out to celebrate the New Year.
Since the Ming Dynasty, Chinese Emperors and more recently, the elite have served shark fin soup, as a symbol of the wealth and power of the host, and homage to the guests.
A circa 1981 recipe from The New York Times describes it as a gelatinous but otherwise unremarkable soup derived from chicken broth flavored with ginger, mushrooms, soy sauce and a few strips of boiled shark fin.
Because of the rarity of shark fin, a bowl might cost several hundred dollars. But economic reforms and liberalization over the past three decades in China have boosted the commerce, standard of living, literacy and autonomy among its 1.3-billion residents. And hand in hand with this upturn has been a desire by the Chinese to show off their newly found worldliness – with a status symbol such as shark fin soup.
What is Shark Finning?
NOAA describes shark finning as the practice of catching a shark, removing a fin or fins and dumping the remainder of the animal back into the sea. Often they are still alive, but helpless and unable to hunt or survive.
In addition to charges of wastefulness and cruelty, the practice is detrimental because sharks mature and reach reproductive age slowly, and produce few young – making some species significantly vulnerable to the increasing carnage.
Estimates from various resources put the number at 26-million and 73-million shark fins taken annually. Because the practice is illegal, statistics are hard to come by. What is known is the growing concern about overfishing, the impact on shark stocks and the trickle-down effect on the food web.
“Free For All”
Several UN directives forbid shark finning and promote the conservation of sharks. But a paper published by Boston College stated that only 15 of 125 shark fishing nations have solid regulations regarding finning, and added, “Beyond national boundaries, shark fishing is a free for all.”
International waters are difficult to patrol, police and regulate. And penalties remain weak. In 2008, as the US Coast Guard approached a commercial fishing vessel off the coast of Texas, officers saw the operator discard four shark fins over the side. The vessel operator was cited and received a $15,000 penalty. A year later again, USCG officials were boarding another commercial fishing boat, and discovered evidence of shark finning. The angler was fined only US $100: hardly a deterrent, when supply and demand has pushed shark fins to an all-time high of $200-400 per fin.
Numerous countries including Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica and Seychelles have banned shark finning, but it takes vast resources to enforce the bans. Recently, Fin Donnelly, a Canadian Member of Parliament announced federal legislation banning the trade in shark fins. This is the first import ban initiated by a national government in the Western hemisphere, while many individual states in the United States have also banned importing shark fins.
Caught in the Crossfire
The repercussions of commercial shark fishing – be it legal or illegal – are great. Sea turtles, marine mammals, sea birds and other non-targeted fish are killed as by-catch, as well as sharks. Illegal finning operations often take place on substandard vessels, far out at sea: providing hazardous conditions for boat workers.
In addition, studies by the Census of Marine Life show the removal of sharks from ocean habitat creates an increase in their prey: rays, skates and smaller sharks. As a result, shellfish stocks are disadvantaged by a glut of these predators. The report told of shell fisheries in Japan and North America, decimated – once the apex predators were eliminated, and stated, “Without a proportionate number of sharks, an ecological imbalance with potentially disastrous repercussions will occur.”
Tide is Turning
With supply and demand driving fin prices ever higher, it is unlikely illegal and black market operators will cease. But leading hospitality businesses in Asia are turning the tide against shark fin products, and finning.
Peninsula Hotels CEO Clement K.M. Kwok announced that Asia’s oldest hotel chain was removing shark fin from its menus, saying, “We hope our decision can contribute to preserving the marine ecosystem for the world’s future generations. We also hope our decision will inspire other hospitality companies to do the same and that our industry will play a role in helping to preserve the biodiversity of our oceans.”
Shangri-La Hotels, with properties on mainland China and elsewhere in Asia, followed suit; as well as Singapore’s largest supermarket chain – FairPrice – which vowed to stop selling shark fin products by the end of March. Said CEO Seah Kian Peng, “This will be the last Chinese New Year in which customers can buy shark fin products at all our stores.”
In keeping, the staff at Ecology Global Network wishes everyone 新年快樂 ( Happy New Year) and offers this Faux Shark Fin Soup recipe from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.