A photograph that appeared on my Facebook feed this morning made me do a double take. It was a dead shark at the bottom of the ocean, almost unrecognisable in its mutilated, ravaged state. The very picture of horror and tragedy, it was effectively designed to evoke revulsion and pity.
The image was just one of many such posts I have encountered recently, imploring those celebrating the upcoming Lunar New Year on February 8 to abstain from shark’s fin soup by bringing home the gruesome reality of what finning does to these creatures.
Yet, despite the ubiquity of these memes and ongoing work by conservationists, the shark fin industry is still a lucrative trade, with fins going for as much as US$650 per kilogramme.
With an estimated 73 million sharks still being harvested every year, it seems that these gory pictures aren’t as effective as we think they might be, and this challenge is one that won’t be solved easily.
As we see in many other conservation and environmental campaigns, awareness of an issue is one thing, but action stemming from that awareness is quite another.
To begin with, it doesn’t help that the majority of shark fin consumers come from a country with the largest population in the world. At 1.4 billion people, the Chinese market has an influence on the supply chain like no other. Furthermore, the country’s growth in recent decades has only fuelled the appetite for what they deem to be luxury items.
To understand the allure of the shark fin, we have to look at its cultural significance.
Its very presence on the dining table connotes status and wealth, and is an auspicious sign that prosperity and abundance are sure to follow. It also remains as part of festivities because it is tradition and a gesture of respect to previous generations.
As for those who argue that the delectable nature of the dish is hard to give up, the truth is that in itself, the fin has very little flavour. Served in a thick soup made with ingredients such as crab meat, pork, chicken, and dried scallops, the fin strands take on a savoury profile not of its own flavour, but that of its companions.
Replacing the fin with vegan and vegetarian substitutes has been shown to be no loss to the taste of the dish, as demonstrated recently when a chef at a Californian restaurant served a soup made with faux fins to Chinese culinary expert and restaurateur Cecelia Chiang.
Made to imitate the toothsome crunch that the shark fin is known for, the substitute passed muster as the expert “had no idea” they were not real. In fact, even after finding out, she returned to the restaurant several times to enjoy it.
Other vegan and vegetarian alternatives are also already in the market, and a new bio-engineered shark fin substitute made entirely from “algae-derived ingredients and recombinant proteins” is in development and expected to be ready this summer.
Yet, there still isn’t enough real demand for these alternatives, despite the fact that it offers little benefits.
Since its medicinal and nutritional worth have long been proven to be almost negligible – contrary to what some believe, it isn’t an aphrodisiac nor will it cure cancer – the shark fin has no intrinsic value to the human being.
Its preparation is also tedious and time-consuming, requiring many hours to process before it lands in the soup pot. Its vaunted status was built on its relative rarity during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) where its availability was limited to royalty. But today, lesser Chinese restaurants offer it on their menus as well, effectively making it less than a rare treat than just an expensive one.
Finally, the unsustainable nature of this enterprise and the damage it has inflicted to the ocean’s ecological system cannot be overstated. Sharks are being used as a food source, but unlike farmed animals that are reared in large numbers for meat, they are hunted with no regard for their dwindling populations.
We need to recognise the shark fin soup for what it is: a pointless tradition.
Perhaps what we need is to get people to recognise the shark’s fin soup for what it is: a pointless tradition.
Abstinence is a start, and a boycott of fin-serving establishments might also help. In the small island of Singapore – where majority of the population is ethnic Chinese – a new survey by WWF shows three in four people would support legislation to curb the consumption of shark fin in the country, a positive sign that there are already many who see that it is time for this long-cherished practice to be left behind.
And this new perspective can be spread by educating the next generation.
We need parents to teach children that cultural heritage is not a package deal where every custom has to be slavishly upheld, and that you can still have a meaningful and delicious Lunar New Year celebration without contributing to the unsavoury end of these creatures.
Faux fin soup, anyone?