One of the world's most controversial dishes, shark fin soup is a traditional delicacy of Chinese cuisine. It is often sold at eye-popping prices as a luxury item at many Chinese restaurants and served on special occasions of the Chinese like weddings, banquets, and official functions. The shark fin soup has a long and storied history. For decades, a large section of conservationists, scientists, animal welfare organizations, and environmentalists have eyed this dish with disdain as they believe the indiscriminate hunting of sharks for their fins threatens shark populations worldwide and also adversely impacts the marine ecosystems of the world.
Shark fin soup was a favorite of the royals of the Ming Dynasty as well as those of the Qing Dynasty. Though previously its use was primarily restricted to the royals, nobles, and wealthy merchants, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the use of shark fin soup became more widespread among the Chinese population. Today, with the rising wealth of the Chinese middle class, more and more people are able to afford the highly expensive shark fins for preparing soups, stews or stir-fry dishes. The soup is served on special formal and informal occasions and is seen as a symbol of wealth, status, and honor in society. Serving shark fin soup is considered to be a show of appreciation towards the guests of informal or formal parties.
Taste and Popularity
Shark fin soup is a popular dish in many Chinese restaurants around the world. In China, a survey conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) revealed that nearly 83% of the participants had consumed shark fin soup at some point in their lifetime. Those who have tasted the shark fin soup claim that it is virtually tasteless but has a soft, smooth texture. The taste comes from the soup but the high price label associated with the shark fin makes it highly coveted and desirable among the masses. The ancient Chinese texts and traditional Chinese medicinal accounts claim that the shark fin soup is associated with manifold health benefits. There are claims that shark fin consumption boosts sexual desires, protects against heart disease, supplies life-giving energy, and enhances appetite. A section of the shark fin consumers also believes that its consumption keeps cancer at bay.
Though the traditional Chinese medicine claims that the shark fins have innumerable health benefits, modern scientific research suggests otherwise. Only a single study on the effect of shark fin on cancer has been conducted which has proven the inefficacy of the shark fin in curing cancer. Research has also proven that the shark fins are not nutritionally rich and almost devoid of vitamins. On the contrary, modern medical research claims that shark fins are in fact unhealthy food options for people. Since sharks are one of the top predators in the ocean, large amounts of mercury accumulate in their bodies as a result of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. When human feed on the body parts of these sharks, high levels of toxic mercury enters their systems and they become susceptible to adverse health impacts.
Environmental Impacts and Animal Cruelty
Very little attention is paid to animal welfare in the extraction of fins from sharks. Sharks that are caught from the ocean are hauled up on the boats or ships where their fins are cut and then the animal, writhing in pain, is thrown back into the ocean, left to die, unable to swim, hunt, and survive. This also threatens the survival of sharks and decimates shark populations in great numbers. This practice has been condemned by many international conservation and animal welfare organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Shark Whisperer, Fins Attached, and Shark Angels.
In response to worldwide protests and on the basis of sustainability issues, many restaurants, food chains, and supermarkets in China and other parts of the world selling shark fins and serving shark fin preparations, have stopped the practice. For example, Hong Kong Disneyland, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, and the University of Hong Kong removed the dish from their restaurant or cafeteria menus. In Malaysia, shark fin soup servings at official functions have been banned. Many states in the United States have banned the trade in shark fins. The Shark Conservation Act signed in 2011 by U.S. President Barack Obama also helped protect the sharks from finning. Other countries have also taken significant measures against the banning of shark fin soups. Currently, a large number of animal welfare and conservation organizations are at work, attempting to educate the masses and raise awareness about the need to conserve sharks and the cruel treatment of the sea creatures during the finning process.