There are hundreds of different cultures all over the world, and each has their own diet and methods of food preparation that seem odd, or maybe even disgusting, to people raised on the generally bland fare of North America and much of Europe. The Inuit eat fish eyeballs, while in New Guinea they chow down on giant forest grubs. These are cultural differences that we have to accept, and even embrace. Other dietary choices, however, become much harder to accept. Shark fin soup falls into this category.
A delicacy in China and Japan, shark fin soup is made from the fins of a variety of sharks, though the Tiger, Mako, Sawfish, Sandbar, Bull, Hammerhead, Blacktip, Porbeagle, Blue and Thresher sharks are the preferred species. The sawfish ray is considered the best, but it is critically endangered, with trade prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The fin itself apparently has little flavour, save what it absorbs from other ingredients. Its value in the soup comes largely from the idea that it is rare.
However, as China industrializes and the standard of living marches upward, more and more people are demanding shark fin soup, once reserved for the elite of society. Over 35% of the people in China admitted in a recent (2006) study to having eaten shark fin soup in the past year.
The process of acquiring the fins for the soup is quite brutal. The process is known as finning, where between 25 and 75 million sharks are caught each year, only to have their dorsal fin sliced off and then the creature, often still living, is thrown back into the sea. The sharks are unable to swim properly, and slowly sink to the ocean floor, typically dying in short order.
Sharks are also actively fished for their meat, and many fall victim to bycatch, caught and discarded from the fishery for more valuable species.
Sharks are an apex predator, the top of the oceanic food chain. They are slow to mature and in contrast with most other fish species, they produce relatively few young. In recent years, the population of some species has declined by 70% – 90%, largely due to overfishing, with the shark fin trade responsible for the bulk of the fishing. There is a significant chance that a majority of shark species could disappear in the near future.
As apex predators, sharks play a vital role in regulating the ocean’s ecosystem. Like other top predators, like wolves and big cats, sharks regulate the population of prey species, keeping the eco-system in balance. As many of the creature that sharks prey on are themselves predators, having them get out of balance can cause a great deal of harm through the ecosystem. This can lead to further imbalances and even population crashes.
Apex predators can be used as a barometer of the ocean’s health, however, as anything in the food chain gets concentrated at the higher trophic levels. Given the amount of mercury found in shark flesh, there is definitely something going wrong at lower levels. In fact, Greenpeace has listed sharks as a species that shouldn’t be eaten by pregnant women and children, due to the high mercury content, and even healthy adults should limit their consumption.
There is some hope, though, faint as it may be. Hawai’i has recently passed a law banning not just the practice of finning, but the serving of shark fin soup at all, with stiff penalties for violations. Guam is looking into a similar law. Perhaps if more nations start doing that, if more people start pushing for protection of sharks under the terms of CITES, despite the objections of Japan and China, we might yet manage to save them.
People are afraid of sharks. Movies like “Jaws” “Shark Tale” “Deep Blue Sea”, and many others, prey on that fear, and enhance it. That fear makes it difficult for people to find sharks sympathetic, to care about what happens to them. But we need to care about them. Apex predators are a key part of any ecosystem. We’ve already done enough damage to the ocean ecology, and we need to maintain its top-level predators.