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.

 


Joshua

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

He wasn't aware of the...ethical dilemmas...at the time.

Dave

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.

Mitch

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

P.Lo

maybe some place along the southeast coast

hanmeng

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.

richard d

I saw this great video on youtube where gordon ramsay trys to understand shark fin soup.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r65FgUYdBOc

Some of the scenes are pretty horrific.

YX

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.

Max

I wrote about this issue in March http://eagleionline.com/2011/03/08/s-o-s-save-our-sharks/

YX

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.

David

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

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.

Danny

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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Brian

"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.

Steve

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.

Rachel Vickerstaff, HK Shark Foundation

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 www.hksharkfoundation.org - thank you!

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Phil

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.

Cindy Lee

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.

John

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.

Janus

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

Brad C

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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Laurie R.

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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Linda O'Brien

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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Ian M

Speaking of seal clubbing and the Chinese...

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2011/11/09/nl-seal-deal-1109.html