“Sharks are among the most perfectly constructed creatures in nature. Some forms have survived for two hundred million years”.

  Eugenie Clark

 

 

Millions of bowls of this soup are served each year— not your typical chicken noodle soup or a hearty veggie soup, but rather a historical and cultural delicacy: shark fin soup.

This soup has its prestigious roots in the Ming Dynasty of China. Originally, the soup was served by ancient Chinese emperors to honour guests; the shark fin was thought to have medicinal benefits and the conquering of such a rare “beast” had also symbolized the power and wealth of the emperor. It gained more popularity during the subsequent Chinese dynasties, eventually becoming considered as a tradition in formal banquets and ceremonies.

 

Unfortunately, the production of shark fin soup has proven to be disastrous for shark populations. The process of procuring the fins of sharks for this delicacy— in a practice called shark finning—is a major cause of rapidly plummeting shark populations across the globe. In fact, the population of multiple shark species have been reduced by 80% or more in the past 50 years due to shark finning. Along with other causes, shark finning has contributed to more than 60% of shark species are threatened—the highest proportion among all vertebrate groups.

 

Shark finning is the practice of removing the shark fins after the shark has been caught. Once a shark has been caught, all of the shark’s fins are targeted and sliced off. Shark finning occurs across almost all species of sharks, with the average price of shark fins reaching over $400 US per kilogram. However, the body of the shark itself will only sell for an average of $0.50 US per kilogram— evidently not enough for fishermen to justify keeping the entire shark, causing the overwhelming majority of the sharks to be disposed of back into the ocean. As a result, the shark is left to a slow and painful death. The sharks are unable to swim without its fins and, as a result, cannot absorb adequate amounts oxygen through its gills—a process that occurs mostly as sharks swim. The sharks eventually suffocate or bleed out in the ocean.

 

The cultural significance of shark fin soup had not faded— in fact, demand has only increased across Asia since the Ming Dynasty as more people are becoming financially capable of affording what was once considered as an elite, luxury dish. Across the whole of China, shark fin soup is a staple during formal events and ordered at restaurants as a means to impress dinner guests. Though increased awareness regarding the ethical issues of shark fin soup has surfaced during the past decade, it remains a staple in Chinese culture as a symbol of wealth and generosity. The estimated cost of this industry is more than the global chewing gum industry: upwards of US$1.2 billion.

 

Surveys show that the majority of Chinese do not understand how shark fin soup is made, and many aren’t even aware that the fins come from sharks themselves. “Shark fin soup” is translated to “fish fin soup” in Mandarin and Cantonese, leading many Asians to incorrectly believe that the fins come from common species of fish. Thankfully, recent advertisements in mainland China has contributed to increased awareness of the origins of shark fin soup, leading to a decline in demand in parts of China and Hong Kong in recent years.

Yao Ming, a famous Chinese NBA basketball player, has been credited with changing public perceptions of shark fin soup in mainland China and Hong Kong through his involvement in raising awareness regarding the origins of the shark fin.

One example of how this practice has affected shark populations is seen in the species of oceanic whitetip sharks. The oceanic whitetip shark is one of many shark species that is highly valued in the international shark fin trade, and has been heavily targeted in its local tropical and sub-tropical waters as a result. In its local habitat—usually off-shore, deep-ocean areas—the oceanic whitetip shark is considered the top predator, eating mostly pelagic cephalopods, bony fish, and squid. These sharks have a distinctive pattern of mottled white markings on the tips of their fins, hence why they are called “whitetip” sharks.

Once abundant, the oceanic whitetip shark is currently seeing steep declines in its populations with low likelihoods of recovery. This can be attributed to their low reproductive output and their late age of maturity and reproduction. Oceanic whitetip sharks also swim slowly and near the surface of the ocean, making them prone to becoming caught by fishermen. Their large, distinct fins are also valued highly in the shark fin trade. Just this year, NOAA Fisheries has classified the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although increased protections have been taking place in recent years across many countries, involving both the catching and distribution of shark fins, shark finning still remains a significant threat to shark populations around the world. The majority of shark fins originates from less economically developed countries, such as Costa Rica, Taiwan, and Indonesia, as well as on the high seas. Little to no enforcement is taking place in such areas, causing most catches to go unmonitored. Many difficulties arise in enforcing sustainable fishing practices in such remote where annual shark catches often exceed 100,000 tonnes, for an estimated total of 100 million sharks killed. This number could potentially be grossly underestimated, as many fins are illegally retrieved and distributed across remote ports with little oversight, therefore remaining unreported in global statistics.

The killing of a shark for shark fin soup differs from the global meat industry in many ways. Most importantly, sharks are an integral part of their ecosystem. As an apex predator, sharks play an important role in regulating population levels of all species in its ecosystem. More specifically, sharks keep the balance in marine populations to maintain species diversity and will remove weak organisms to help with natural selection. Thus, the process of removing sharks for shark fin soup will not only endanger sharks, but also the marine ecosystem of the shark as well. The killing of a shark for its fins is also unnecessarily cruel; an entire organism is killed only for a small segment to be consumed. The shark, a sentient and oftentimes intelligent animal, is left to die a slow, painful death. And, to make matters worse, the actual fin of the shark does not contribute to the taste or consistency of the soup.

Very recently, the demand for shark fin soup has been on the decline in Hong Kong and mainland China as more people are exposed to ethical issues behind the practice of obtaining the shark fin. Yet, the cultural significance of shark fin soup still remains, and, despite the decrease in demand in some parts of Asia, other countries—namely Vietnam and Macau—has seen a surge in demand. Fortunately, younger generations, who have had less exposure to the cultural significance of shark fin soup, are more conscientious of the issues behind the shark fin and place less emphasis on its cultural role. Hopefully, this trend will continue as future generations will take up their parent’s stances—placing more value on the shark, and less value on the outdated cultural tradition of shark fin soup.

 

If you are travelling in Asia, you can contribute to the livelihood of sharks and their native ecosystems by saying “no” to shark fin soup and encouraging others to do so as well. Especially in places such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, where shark fin soup is sold relatively cheaply by local street vendors, it is imperative to discourage the widespread distribution. As people stop supporting these shark fin soup vendors, the demand for shark fin soup will decrease, eventually forcing local vendors to stop selling the product. Despite the current widespread distribution of shark fins, progress is being made as more and more people begin to speak up against the injustice. A change in attitude may just be on the horizon.

 

Posted by: Ning Jiang

 

 

Works Cited:

“Appetite for shark fin soup drives massive shark population decline.” University of British Columbia, science.ubc.ca/news/appetite-shark-fin-soup-drives-massive-shark-population-decline.

“The Bitter Truth behind Shark Fin Soup.” Bali Animal Welfare Association, bawabali.com/our-programs/responsible-tourism/shark-finning/.

Collins, Nick. “Oceanic whitetip shark: ten facts.” The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/8183748/Oceanic-whitetip-shark-ten-facts.html.

Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Smithsonian, ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/sharks-rays/shark-finning-sharks-turned-prey.

“I’m Finished with Fins.” Shark Savers, WildAid, www.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/i-m-finished-with-fins/learn-more/shark-fin-soup-harms-our-oceans/.

McCarthy, Joe. “Shark Fin Soup Is Pushing Sharks to Extinction — Yet It’s Still Served.” Global Citizen, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/shark-fin-soup-pushing-sharks-extinction/.

“Oceanic whitetip shark.” Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Government of Canada, www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/profiles-profils/oceanicwhitetipshark-rameur-eng.html.

“Oceanic Whitetip Shark.” NOAA Fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/oceanic-whitetip-shark.

“Oceanic Whitetip Shark.” Oceana, oceana.org/marine-life/sharks-rays/oceanic-whitetip-shark.

“Say #Nosharkfin.” World Wildlife Foundation, www.wwf.sg/get_involved/say_no_shark_fin/.

“Shark Finning.” AnimalJustice, www.animaljustice.ca/issues/shark-finning.

“Shark finning.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shark_finning.

“SHARKS.” WildAid, wildaid.org/programs/sharks/.

“What Is Shark Finning?” Stop Shark Finning, www.stopsharkfinning.net/what-is-shark-finning/.

“Why Does Shark Finning Happen?” PADI, www2.padi.com/blog/2017/07/26/why-does-shark-finning-happen/.

Yeung, Karen A. “The Politics of Shark Fin Soup.” Paws for Hope, pawsforhope.org/the-politics-of-shark-fin-soup/.