Late in 1998 a man hauled a shark out of the sea. With a sharp knife he hacked off its fins and put them somewhere safe, then he tossed the mutilated fish back into the ocean. Its blood clouded the salty sea. Unable to swim, the shark sank to the sea bed where it died a slow death… all so I could eat a bowl of soup.
No… No… No. That won’t do. I never saw the shark die. I don’t know its final moments. I don’t know who caught it, and where or when or how. But, yes, I did eat the soup, and whenever I think of that meal I paint the above picture in my mind. It is possible that it is a perfect portrayal but I just don’t know for sure.
The meal came at Chinese New Year, 1999, in Miri, a small city in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Back then I lived in a research station in a national park. I survived on a field biologist’s diet of instant noodles, some fresh fruit and vegetables, and plenty of black market gin. So when a Malaysian-Chinese friend invited me to celebrate the new year at a family feast, my tastebuds would not have let me say no.
The shark’s fin I ate that night stands tall in my mind as the strangest thing I have tasted. It looked and felt like a brown hair comb that someone had boiled for many hours into semi-softness. It had no meat nor even skin, just the cartilage that gave the living fin its shape. It had no real flavour, just plenty of bounce. I had no idea what it was but I was sure I didn’t want a second serving. When I asked the person seated next to me what was in the bowl I expected them to name a strange vegetable or a kind of seaweed. “Shark fin,” they replied with a broad grin.
And so, I felt bad, for I knew what my meal meant.
It meant another dead shark. Or several, in fact, as around twenty other people ate the soup at the same party. And in China and overseas Chinese communities worldwide the fin count that festive night would have run into millions. Yes, tens of millions of sharks are killed for their fins each year (see point two here). The Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Group said Hong Kong imported 10 million kilograms of shark fins in 2011 alone.
Demand for the soup is a leading cause of the steep decline in numbers of several shark species. These predators are at the top of ocean food chains. From their position there they help to keep entire ecosystems in balance. Damage to the way sharks help regulate ocean life — and the food it provides us — would be a high price for a soup that doesn’t even taste of much.
But rather than this risk, it is the act of finning — which I described in the opening paragraph — that tends to get people most worked up over shark fin soup. Finning happens because the men who harvest fins don’t want the much less valuable shark meat eating up space in their boats.
David Shiffman, who studies sharks, calls finning “one of the most wasteful, unsustainable and inhumane methods of gathering food in the history of human civilisation“. As Shiffman points out though, not all fins in soup come from sharks that have been finned at sea. A rising proportion comes from sharks whose meat also reaches the market. But the image of the finless fish that falls to the ocean floor has stuck.
This is what Western campaigners have used to try to convince Asian consumers to change their choices. But this moralising smells like hypocrisy to anyone who has been inside the industrial pig or chicken farms whose hidden brutalism supplies many of the same outraged Westerners with their own traditional foods. And it means advocacy messages are liable to misfire.
Grace Chua, a journalist in Singapore, told me she thinks campaigns have missed their target. “Because of Western campaigns against finning, I think most people here misunderstand the drive against shark’s fin. They’re being told not to eat it because it’s cruel to the shark, rather than because it affects the marine ecosystem.” Grace was one of three people I asked about attitudes to shark fin after I saw a 2012 CNN report that said young people in Asia are less interested in eating shark fin. Their responses — and this recent footage of thousands of fins drying on a Hong Kong roof — suggest demand is as strong as ever.
“Admittedly I still do eat shark’s fin if it’s served during meals I’m invited to (only because it is actually very delicious), but I would not go out of my way to eat or order it myself,” said the Malaysian friend whose family served me shark fin. Another friend from Hong Kong explained how status, not taste, is what matters most. “If you don’t get shark fin soup at a banquet it’s considered somewhat cheap — even though no-one really likes it. Food in general is status thing. Like wine and champagne, people eat shark fins because they’re expensive.”
With perceptions like this, the future looks bleak for sharks. Grace Chua suggests a new approach. “Instead of changing people’s mind-sets about the environmental impact of fishing for shark, you have to change the entire social norm,” she told me. “You have to take shark’s fin soup from a mark of prestige to a mark of ignorance and backwardness. If you can do that, you can wipe out the desire for shark’s fin soup in a generation or two, even as the innate human desire for status remains. It’s already happening to some extent. Unfortunately the sharks may not last another human generation or two.”
I didn’t know I had eaten shark fun until it was too late. What I know now is that what I know matters little. The fate of sharks will depend largely on whether Asian conversations change Asian minds.