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.



Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. 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!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Keith Delaney says:

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


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0