Shark meat has few health benefits and often contains toxic levels of mercury, yet shark fin soup and other such dishes remain delicacies in cultures around the world.
Shark fin soup is an ancient celebratory Chinese dish that is said to signify prosperity and remains a coveted meal among many people the world over. Even today, a bowl of the stuff can go for up to $100.
But there is a dark side to this dish.
Even though the delicacy is highly sought after, creating a multimillion-dollar market within the fishing industry, it can actually be toxic to human health and its high demand has endangered many species of shark.
So why are people all over the world still ordering shark fin soup?
First Of All, What Is Shark Fin Soup?
Shark fin soup originated as a delicacy in China during the Song Dynasty of 960 to 1279.
Because the dish made a meal of the most fearsome guardians of the ocean, it represented the power and wealth of whoever ate it. Even today, shark fin soup is considered a symbol of wealth and good fortune.
Shark fin soup is made of the shredded cartilage of a shark’s dorsal fin — the fin on the top of its back. The cartilage is said to add flavor as well as to thicken the broth, and it requires a laborious four days to prepare.
Because the soup requires such strenuous preparation, serving it is considered a show of tremendous hospitality.
Shark fin soup became a popular dish among the Chinese elite as it embodied their elevated status and the dish continued to be so through the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Interestingly, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the consumption of shark fin soup experienced a sudden decline.
Other countries with large Chinese populations around the world, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, have also taken to the delicacy.
“There was an old saying in Hong Kong in the 1970s: ‘To stir shark fin with rice,'” said Tracy Tsang, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Footprint program in Hong Kong where shark fin soup continues to be a popular dish.
“It was used to describe the lifestyle of the wealthy, implying that they were rich enough to afford shark fin on a daily basis.”
By the late 1980s, the once-forgotten dish experienced a renaissance. As China underwent massive economic reform, its upper and middle classes suddenly had more money to spare. The dish was once again heralded as a sign of prosperity for citizens who wanted to flaunt their new wealth.
Now, the dish that was once only reserved for the rich, has become widely commercialized as it has become affordable to a larger population.
A bowl of shark fin soup can even go for as little as $12 depending on the style and preparation of it. Upscale restaurants, however, can still charge more than $160 for a bowl.
The Detriments Of Shark Finning
The popularity of shark fin soup has made shark fins a valuable commodity. Fishermen can sell fins for as much as $500 a pound, sometimes even more.
To meet the market demand for this expensive ingredient, fishermen typically slice off the shark’s dorsal fin and throw the rest of the animal’s body back into the sea, a cruel practice known as “shark finning.”
Despite making up only five percent of a shark’s body weight, the dorsal fin is integral to a shark’s survival. A shark that has been finned is unable to swim, balance, or breathe properly.
Thus, sharks that have been finned usually die from blood loss or suffocation.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year.
But it is not just the fins that people are after. Shark meat is considered a delicacy across many cultures around the world.
For instance, in Iceland, there is a traditional dish known as Hákarl, which involves wrapping up the raw meat of the elusive Greenland Shark and burying it in the ground to ferment before it is eaten.
Some British fish and chips shops are using mislabelled shark meat while Spain and Italy — both of which are among the highest importers of shark meat in Europe — have their own style of shark-based dishes.
“Europe and South America are the largest retail markets for shark meat, and the top 20 importers have remained stable [between 2008 and 2017] with Brazil, Spain, Uruguay, and Italy accounting for 57 percent of average global imports over this time,” a recent report from non-profit organization Traffic stated.
While shark fin soup is not the sole driving force behind shark hunting, experts believe its global popularity is nonetheless a considerable factor in the shark population’s sharp decline.
The popularity of shark finning combined with the species’ slow reproductive rate means that its population is incredibly vulnerable.
Some shark species are already endangered or considered vulnerable, such as the scalloped hammerhead or the smooth hammerhead. The endangerment of a top predator like sharks can possibly have dangerous consequences on the ocean’s ecosystem as a whole.
Unsustainable For Humans And The Environment
It’s clear that the mass commercialization of shark meat even beyond shark fin soup has contributed a great deal to the rapid decline of the shark population.
But the consequences of consuming shark meat go beyond the environmental; shark meat can even be hazardous to human health. Because they are at the top of the oceanic food chain, sharks experience a bioaccumulation of toxins from the fish that they prey on. What this means is that whatever toxins were consumed by smaller fish and the even smaller fish that they preyed on, the shark absorbs those toxins collectively.
Recent studies have shown this leads to high concentrations of mercury, methylmercury, and other poisonous metals in shark meat.
And yet, for some, consuming shark fin soup is a historical tradition that needs to be preserved despite the health risks.
“Today, the older generation still considers serving shark fin to their guests during banquets a sign of hospitality,” Tsang from the WWF explained.
Fortunately, as humans have begun to understand the consequences of consuming sharks, there has been a growing conservation movement geared towards changing the public’s attitude about shark-based foods.
In China, nationwide conservation campaigns have reportedly helped to reduce the consumption of shark fin soup by 80 percent since 2011. Customers instead are slowly yet steadily embracing more sustainable substitutes for shark fins, such as sea cucumber, bird’s nest, or non-animal products.
Additionally, he U.K., the European Union, and several states across the U.S. have all banned the practice of shark finning altogether.
As humans begin to realize the consequences of our global footprint, certain practices no matter how culturally significant will see changes in order to protect our planet’s wildlife.