Lone Sharks: Persuading the Chinese to Give up Shark’s Fin Soup

Shark’s fin soup has long been considered a delicacy in Chinese communities around the world, served for special occasions and for honored guests. Yet the practice of cutting off the fin of live sharks and then throwing them back in the ocean has raised the ire of animals rights and environmental advocates. In China, conservation groups have tried to educate Chinese citizens about the harmful impact of the practice, and their campaign received a boost when basketball star Yao Ming became a spokesman for the cause. The Economist reports:

The booming Chinese appetite for shark’s fin soup is known to be the driving force behind the depletion of shark species worldwide. Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation at the Pew Environment Group, says that more than 30% of shark species are at risk of extinction. Marine ecosystems depend on the presence of high-level predators to keep other species in check, he says. Yet many Chinese accuse the campaigners of double standards. Why should shark’s fin, an important part of certain Chinese feasts, be banned, they ask? Why not ban bluefin tuna, which is also critically endangered, but more widely eaten by Westerners?

Lacking any inherent flavour, shark’s fin is treasured in China for its strandy, gelatinous “mouth feel”, its centuries-old status as a prized dish and its astronomical price. Serving it honours both host and guest. Most Westerners, unschooled in its pleasures, consider it a pointless delicacy. Juliet Eilperin, an American author, sums up the general Western viewpoint in “Demon Fish”, a book about sharks. A frond of fin, she says, is “a translucent, tasteless bit of noodle” and shark’s fin soup “one of the greatest scams of all time”. Eating it, Ms Eilperin suggests, is even more reprehensible than eating other morally objectionable foods such as delicious foie gras, because there is “no gastronomic pay-off”.

Celebrity endorsements and well-meaning Californians aside, the question now is whether wealthy Chinese in Asia can be persuaded to stop eating shark’s fin. Sceptics abound. Being lectured by Westerners on cultural or moral issues gets right up the noses of most Chinese. But if disapproval of the consumption of shark’s fin encourages the Chinese to see it as luo hou (backward), one of the most dreaded of all Chinese epithets, they might want to renounce the stuff anyway.

After a protracted debate over animal protection, cultural heritage, and charges of racism, California governor Jerry Brown signed AB 376, banning the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. Hawaii, Oregon and Washington have passed similar bills. And now Toronto and other Canadian cities may follow suit. The Los Angeles Times reports on the passage of the law in California:

The ban on shark fins, a key ingredient of a traditional soup, divided Chinese Americans. Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) introduced it to stop what he called a brutal practice that is wiping out large numbers of sharks. The governor agreed.

“The practice of cutting the fins off of living sharks and dumping them back in the ocean is not only cruel, but it harms the health of our oceans,” Brown said in a statement after signing the bill, AB 376.

Supporters said the harvest threatens the existence of some species. The governor said he signed the bill “in the interest of future generations.”

Many Chinese restaurant owners stood with lawmakers who voted against the legislation. State Sen. Yee labeled the bill “an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine.”

Meanwhile, Treehugger helpfully posts a recipe for a soup using an environmentally correct faux shark’s fin.