What’s the Story With Shark Fin Soup?

A reader named Chuck Armitage writes in with a question about which I know nothing but which I’d like to know much more.

So what do you say, readers? What do you know, and think, and what can you tell us?

Here is my question… Why is shark fin soup still popular?

Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture and yet that is what shark fin soup represents. The more expensive it gets, the more it proves that your host honors you by serving the soup. And the more the West vilifies the barbarian finning practices of the shark fisherman, the more the Chinese seem to dig in their heels and say look at your own barbaric practices before you racially attack us. There is a huge disconnect between what are normally considered admirable traits of civilized Chinese society and what is going on with this tradition.

Are the activities of the ecology activists helping or hurting their cause? How do you change the sentiments of a seemingly positive tradition when the act is causing such an ecological disaster? Is seal clubbing or factory farming as bad as shark-finning?

It is a burning issue right now and many species of sharks will go extinct if it is not solved. No matter what we do in North America, the real issue is in Asia. Even if we ban the import of shark fin here, the growing wealth in China will end the shark as we know it in our oceans.

How can this be positioned in a way that will be championed by the Chinese populace?

I cannot vouch for Chuck’s facts or assertions but I trust his questions are at least valid — although I raised a brow at his claim that “ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture,” at least when I think about modern Chinese urban culture. I asked Freakonomics researcher Bourree Lam to weigh in on the shark-fin idea:

From personal experience, shark fin was a “fancy thing” in the ’80s/’90s and very much a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” item in middle class circles. Nowadays I think good red wine (from France preferably) is much more popular with the Chinese middle class. Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Hong Kong have been making a killing on wine auctions for the past couple years, but it’s been record-breaking for the Chinese market in the past year. Gold sales are also way up. Luxury purses (LV) and shark fin seem to be something just to please Grandma at weddings these days. I’m not sure that environmental activism has anything to do with it? Bird nest is very popular too, but also fading out. I think this generation of Chinese are less obsessed with that stuff, but looks like it is getting less popular.



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  1. Joshua says:

    I hear it’s delicious (from a friend with experience).

    He wasn’t aware of the…ethical dilemmas…at the time.

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  2. Dave says:

    Americans and Japanese are mostly responsible for the extreme overfishing of certain species of tuna (for sushi). If we continue down our current path, we’ll drive many species of tuna extinct before sharks.

    STOP BUYING AND EATING TUNA. Only buy sustainably harvested fish.

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  3. Mitch says:

    How about rhino horn as an aphrodesiac? Or tiger penis for that matter.

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  4. P.Lo says:

    maybe some place along the southeast coast

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  5. hanmeng says:

    Chinese culture is all about face, and for those with money, ostentation. (China is now one of the largest–if not the largest–markets for luxury designers.) Commenter Joshua’s friend claims shark’s fin is delicious, but to me it’s practically tasteless. As far as I’m concerned, they could replace it with cellophane (or bean thread) noodles.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  6. YX says:

    Shark Fin is something Chinese been eating for a thousand years. It’s same thing as if people tell Americans they need stop eat stuff they been eating for… oh wait, nevermind.

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    • YX says:

      That is like saying you can still keep your cattle as pet, but you must eat veggie burgers. Or you can still keep your wife as a gossip machine but you must DIY.

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  7. David says:

    Whenever I get served shark’s fin soup, usually at Chinese weddings, I don’t give it much thought. In my experience, nobody really puts it on a pedestal like Westerners think. It comes out like any other course, and is dished out from a large vessel into smaller bowls, usually with more regard to efficiency than elegance. The taste? It’s pretty delicious but I don’t consider it a delicacy nor do I get excited about eating it the way I do foie gras or uni or truffles. When I was younger, I didn’t understand the ethical issue. Now I do and if I had to avoid it, it’d be easy. Nobody in my family or myself has ever ordered it. It’s not due to expense but lack of interest. If I never ate it again, I could not care less. I would bet that if you asked most Chinese, particularly Chinese-Americans, they would agree with me. Banning shark’s fin is an easy task because nobody will put up a fight about it. That’s my opinion.

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    • Ross says:

      How much of the soup flavor is attributed to the shark fin and not the other ingredients and spices? The reason it is desired is due to the exotic nature and high price of the fin. I don’t think it would be easy to completely ban fining as it is so rooted in tradition.

      Try taking away turkey from North American Thanksgiving dinner tables. Iceland and Norway continue whaling even though you would think they understand the ethical issues (Iceland even hunts an endangered species). Fining is here to stay for some time, until a world wide organization finally grows a spine and enforces a ban.

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  8. Danny says:

    ostentation is associated with every culture, people are just ostentatious about different things in different time periods.

    i actually think the environmentalists are gaining ground, albeit slowly. it’s a long tradition that’s not going to change over night. as with all traditions, they evolve as old people die and the newer generation comes up and either can or cannot understand the reasoning for the traditions. most of the time, shark fin needs to be cooked a long period of time to make it palatable and then it needs to be cooked with stuff like dried scallop, dried shrimp, fish in order to make the soup even taste good. it’s a random dish, and hopefully one day it’ll disappear.

    but yea, if you think chinese people are not showy, just go look at the cars that the wealthy drive over there. they look EXACTLY like mercedes and bmw’s to me. ain’t no chinese rich person gonna be caught driving a clunker, unless they start a cash for clunker program 😉

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  9. Brian says:

    “Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture”? Huh? In Vancouver, at least, the local Ferrari, Bentley, Mercedes, etc. dealerships would go out of business were it not for the Chinese market. Didn’t the Wall Street Journal just run a story on Home Depot having to shut stores in China because they couldn’t convince consumers to spend money on the “interior” of their homes? It’s my impression that in Chinese culture it’s pretty much only the outward appearance that matters.

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  10. Steve says:

    I had it once, just to scratch it off the list. I was delicious, but I haven’t felt any need to ever have it again.

    If they wanted to, the Chinese government could nix the whole thing like they did for spitting in public before the Olympics.

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  11. Rachel Vickerstaff, HK Shark Foundation says:

    Shark fin is still popular amongst Chinese people and is most popularly served at wedding banquets, although commonly used in client entertainment also. From our experience, as a conservation charity lobbying at the coal face in Hong Kong (ground zero for the world’s shark fin trade), increased awareness of the environmental challenges of consuming shark fin IS causing more people to say no. Younger generations, including schoolkids, are our most fervent supporters – but they’re not in a position to challenge their elders on what gets served when. More and more people in their 20s and 30s are open-minded about the idea of not serving shark fin at their wedding – but many of them crumble in the face of stern opposition from their parents or grandparents. So, even though momentum is building, the question is – whether enough people will say no in time.
    Our approach is to show that shark-free weddings and companies as examples of positivity and sophistication, thereby implying that eating shark fin is ‘backward’ – a culturally undesirable trait.
    If anyone is interested in supporting our work, please visit http://www.hksharkfoundation.org – thank you!

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  12. Phil says:

    It is usually serve on wedding usually to pleases the older folks since it will make the host look good (i.e. got “face”) in front of the guests.

    But nowadays the young is more aware of the harm to the ecology and has try to stop consuming and/or informing their peers to do likewise.

    When I attend a wedding, I will usually not consume the dish and tell the other guest my view, hoping to influence their view on this matter.

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  13. Cindy Lee says:

    It is difficult to move all of Asia into caring for the ecological climate especially since majority of the rising bourgeoisie has been focused on industry at the expense of the environment. The Chinese regard shark fin soup as a staple in all banquets and celebrations, and to go without is considered a huge disrespect to the guests (usually the older generation). Add to how more people can now afford this stuff, I’m not sure demand will drop any time soon.

    Armed with pictures and videos and a calm persistence, I’ve convinced Grandma shark finning is brutal and she now spreads the word for me.

    I’m certain if activists and the hopeful keep at it, we can convince Asia – one grandma at a time.

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  14. John says:

    Speaking as a Taiwanese-American who’s had it probably a dozen times, shark fin has a generic salty, fishy taste and a tough texture. I’ve had vegetarian versions, and they’re just as good, if not better. I can’t speak for people in Asia, but from what I’ve seen here I think it’s really just about celebration. It’s associated with special occasions and thus valued and perpetuated for that reason.

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  15. Janus says:

    Sharks fin soup is still popular as a method of showing ‘face’ and respect to guests – it’s definitely on the decline with the younger generation, but mainly shows up at weddings and other formal functions. Similar case with abalone – a dish that people aren’t crazy about but expensive enough to display that same respect.

    First growth wines have definitely taken up the mantle these days. In Mainland China consumers are largely the newly wealthy and businessmen looking to celebrate a new deal. Hong Kong attracts a wider range of collectors across Asia – this surge has been largely due to HK abolishing its wine import tax in 2008 – which was previously at 80%.

    I raise you another eyebrow on Chuck’s comments on Chinese ostentation. Environmental activism isn’t really a driving force yet. Still remains v big business friendly

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  16. Brad C says:

    The comparisons to consuming beef or turkeys is at the least unfair, if not a total red herring. While there are certainly ecological ramifications and moral objections to the raising and consuming of those and many other items, at least they are replenishing as they take away from the populace. The only true comparison would be what our ancestors did to the great bison herds in North America. The Native Americans took and ate what they needed to survive and used the entire animal (as many native groups still do with seafood worldwide), but the white settlers came in and slaughtered the herds consuming only the rich organs (sweetbreads) and leaving their corpses to rot in the sun until the entire species was almost eliminated. Look at photos of a shark with its fins cut off laying on the bottom of the ocean literally drowning and you are seeing the modern equivalent of one of the great tragedies of American expansion. The Japanese are doing this with many marine species as well (although they do use most of the animal) like whales, dolphins, tuna. If you are in your 30’s the likelihood is that you will see the bluefin tuna go extinct in your lifetime due solely to overfishing.

    I don’t consider myself a treehugger, and I do understand that progress sometimes means compromise, but I do believe that anyang we take from or do to OUR planet has to be done responsibly. Taking creatures from the sea and not giving them the chance to maintain their numbers is not only dangerous to the future of our species, but is indicative of the short sidedness of making a dollar with any consequences be damned that runs rampant in all aspect our culture today. If my continued consumption of turkey meant that my daughter would not be able to show her children one in the wild thirty years from now, I would give it up today. Unfortunately it appears that many of the people of the world (or at least their governments) don’t share this belief.

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  17. Laurie R. says:

    The answer ignored many of the questions. While it’s great that the younger generations of Chinese people are more aware of the environmental impact and less interested in serving shark fin soup, how do we get the older generations to come around? Also, the question “Is seal clubbing or factory farming as bad as shark-finning?” was not addressed, and the answer is a resounding YES. We absolutely should look at the logs in our own eyes before trying to remove the specks from our neighbors’ eyes. Factory farming is an environmental disaster – it’s ruining our land, our fresh water, our oceans, and our bodies. While I understand Brad C.’s point that cows and turkeys are not endangered species and therefore it’s not the same thing, the overall environmental impact is at least as great. Whether or not people are interested in environmental issues now, all of us will be forced to deal with these problems soon, or we and our planet will die.

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  18. Linda O'Brien says:

    I think shark fin soup is still popular because consumers aren’t aware of the barbaric cruelty involved in how the shark fins are obtained. There’s a news item in the Malaysia Star today regarding a thank you letter that was sent to the Sabah Gov’t (2nd largest state in Malaysia) for banning shark fin. http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2011/12/14/nation/10088438&sec=nation

    Here’s an excerpt with quotes from two of the people who signed the thank you letter because their view on eating shark fin soup had changed:

    A recreational diver, Lee described himself as a “typical Chinese who loves good food”, until he saw a video that stunned him on how his bowl of shark fin soup was made.

    Like Lee, Ooi’s “conversion” was no less dramatic.

    “I was in high school when I found out how shark fins were harvested and it completely bewildered me as to why humans would go to great lengths of cruelty just to serve a dish in a restaurant.

    “If we think about it logically, there is absolutely no reason to consume shark fins, other than the old adage of prestige’,” she said. (end quote)

    Sharks are vital to the oceans and therefore vital to the human race. Sharks have survived for 450 million years, but may be gone within 10 years if this brutal hunting continues. Once sharks are de-finned, they’re treated as trash and tossed back into the ocean to die. Over 70 million a year. Is that really worth some bowls of soup that are made from the nearly tasteless cartilage of their fins?

    I believe we do better when we know better, and as a Canadian with proposed legislation to ban the import of shark fins, I would be so proud of Canada if we stood up as one of the first major countries to ban the import of shark fins. Many countries ban the practice of finning, but that’s just lip-service as there’s no way to know if just the fin was taken unless the shark comes with the fin intact. Regrettably, those big shark bodies take up too much cargo space compared to their extremely valuable fins and so, only too often, their live bodies are tossed overboard to slowly drown. And is there any pain to go with that terror? Only a shark without its fins can tell you that.

    The whole world needs an oceanic education on this issue pronto if we’re going to step up and save this species so vitally important to the planet.

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  19. George K. says:

    “Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture…” Unfounded. I would suggest that ostentatious displays of wealth are associated with most cultures when those cultures have disposable income. Rare dishes have been part of Chinese “banquet” culture for a long time. In fact, you might even trace this back to imperial cuisines, which as recorded in historical materials can be crazy extravagant. Another point: if you’re eating at a banquet and you finish everything on your plate, people will urge you to have more and put things on your plate, assuming you’re still hungry. But if you leave something on the plate and stop eating, the assumption is that you’re full. So in other words, banquet culture encourages waste.

    “There is a huge disconnect between what are normally considered admirable traits of civilized Chinese society and what is going on with this tradition.” Again, isn’t this an aspect of almost every human society–touting something as an ideal but not living up to the ideal in practice? And I’m really not sure what you mean by the “admirable traits of civilized Chinese society.” If you’re talking about mainland China, its culture was largely eviscerated by 5o+ years of communist rule. For example, big families were an important part of Chinese society, and now we have a dozens of terms for family members who largely no longer exist under a one-child society. Not that it was a bad thing or a good thing, but it certainly transformed civilized Chinese society.

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  20. FrankDrakman says:

    I’m married to a Chinese woman. I’ve been to many banquets, and shark’s fin soup is served precisely because it’s expensive. The author’s assertion that the Chinese are NOT ostentatious is balderdash; that misconception is a remnant of the centuries where most Chinese were poor, and most Chinese people in the west, until recently, kept a low profile for other reasons. I live in the northern suburbs of Toronto, which has a huge Asian population, and the number of Mercedes, BMW’s, etc. driven at 25 mph puts the lie to the idea.

    As for the method of harvesting sharks’ fins: yes, it looks awful, but does anyone seriously think the remaining shark carcasses just sink to the ocean’s bottom, and lie there to rot? The sea is full of carrion eaters, including other sharks, and it’s most probable that the bodies are returned to the food chain quickly. (And, as an economic side note: sharks, at the top of the ocean’s food chain, compete with man for fish we would eat. Wouldn’t it be to our benefit to reduce the number of sharks so that other species can multiply?)

    Finally, shark’s fin soup is generally bland and uninteresting to eat. It’s generally served with little dishes of sharp red vinegar, which provides the only discernible taste, IMHO. I’d much rather have a decent hot and sour, or crab meat soup than shark’s fin, and most of my relatives quietly agree. We never order it when dining out en famille; it’s only eaten at other people’s weddings, anniversaries, etc. I won’t miss it if it’s gone, except that it’s another instance of the dominant rule of the neo-fascists: “What everybody doesn’t want, nobody gets.”

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  21. Alois says:

    Shark’s fin soup is amazingly delicious. but from what i understand, the shark’s fin itself plays absolutely no part in the flavor of the soup, and could easily be substituted with something else. contrary to what someone said below, i DO get excited whenever i get it, because it is a rare treat that you get, usually only at weddings. sometimes at new year’s too depending on your family. (i’m an ethnically chinese southeast asian.)

    that said, i have always disagreed with how people consider endangering a particular species immoral or an ethical dilemma. categorizing animals into various species is a purely human construct.

    the shark does not care that it belongs to a particular endangered species. it cares about preserving its own life (and maybe the lives of its kin). it feels pain when its fin is sawed off.

    but how is killing a shark any more immoral than say the slaying of a chicken? simply because chickens are not endangered? the chicken (or any other non-endangered animal which we consume) endures a comparable (or probably greater) degree of suffering.

    if we do care about preserving a particular species, it is for our own selfish (human) ends, e.g. satisfying some fuzzy human notion that the extinction of a species is something to mourn about, *over and beyond* any sadness that we may feel from the pain and death of any single animal.

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  22. Mary says:

    I can think of a few ways to get it done, and it would need to be accomplished in a few steps. First, get our own house in order: stop trawling for tuna altogether and close fishing for it in the Gulf of Mexico and Hawaii, close eel fishing, (the American eel population is struggling) and put heavier punishments upon poachers in our waters and on our shores-hate to break it to y’all., but there have been incidents of Chinese and Japanese poaching in US waters (drives the fishermen in Alaska insane.). We need to be morally beyond reproach. Second, encourage those who have lost their jobs in trawling to switch their quarry to invasive Asian carp, Chinese mitten crabs, Rapa whelks, And snakeheads. This all sounds screwy at first, but it is a potentially big market to mine owing to the simple fact that as Asia grows, it’s pollution skyrockets. East Asian cultures prize freshness above all else and imperical evidence would suggest they prefer wild over farmed. The Chinese government is notoriously protectionist, and this part is going to be the trickiest, but time is on our side: take a good look at Google Earth these days-the Yellow river is disgusting. Native stocks have got to be declining. Selling the products to other nations in Asia might also be a plus, as it will create a demand for whelks the size of oranges as opposed to native ones the size of walnuts, snakeheads that are huger than natives, etc. Simultaneously we eliminate major pests from the ecosystem and make a buck off it while at it.

    The last step will be what I call tightening the noose. The Chinese, like all East Asian cultures, is a culture motivated by SHAME, not guilt. What others think of you is paramount, and indvidualism is very weak. Sooo, the smart thing to do is to expose what they are doing to the world, coming up with a mountain of data. Bring in other nations (and not just Western ones) to condemn what they have done and continue to do (getting India to help might work, and I doubt that the nations that make up the Mekong basin are thrilled with the antics over the Chinese border that are affecting their ways of life.)

    Game. Set. Match.


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  23. Linda O'Brien says:

    Well! Thanks, Mary. Your post was beyond a doubt the most clear-headed and informative post I’ve read so far regarding the peril of our shark population. Nice to read there are solutions re: Asian carp,Chinese mitten crabs, Rapa whelks, And snakeheads. And yes, if only we could stop trawling for tuna! God only knows which species is threatened more – sharks or tuna. What a mess we’ve made of things. Our children will have much to curse our generation for.

    Also, I have to say, this is the first good thing I’ve heard about Asian carp – or silverfin/Kentucky tuna. Living on the shores of Lake Erie, all I’ve ever heard was: Beware! The Asian carp are coming! Now, with a little research, I find that Asian carp is actually a nice fish to eat (if a little boney); better yet, the species is low in mercury as they don’t eat other fish. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that the introduction of Asian carp would one of the biggest destructive forces in the Great Lakes, but at least they can be caught, eaten, and exported. And apparently carp caviar is also good to eat, and an alternative to further endangering sturgeon.

    Good to know!

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  24. Keith Delaney says:

    If it is getting “less popular” then why is this such a thing still happening in such vast numbers?


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