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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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