Declining and dismantling shark fin soup traditions

One writer takes a deep dive into the ethics of shark fin soup and what to do if offered the mainstay dish.

No dish in history has popularized sharks like shark fin soup, a mainstay in Chinese tradition.

Served at weddings, banquets, and other formal occasions, shark fin soup is made with broth and cooked fins, which have a chewy, stringy texture.

Why shark fin soup is passé

Though shark fin soup has been served for many centuries in China, controversy has emerged in the last few decades due to the fact that fins contribute no taste to the dish. Food critics have described the dish as “underwhelming” and the fin “bland to the point of nonexistence.”

The number of sharks killed for their fins (also known as “shark finning”) has increased over time. More than 133,000 kilograms of shark fins were imported last year into Canada from China.

Globally, as many as 273 million sharks are killed each year by humans, while there were just 130 reported incidents of shark attacks on humans in 2018.

Though the consumption of shark fin soup has been declining, it wasn’t until this year that Canada became the first G20 country to ban the import and export of shark fins.

In the United States, 12 states and three territories have banned the sale and possession of shark fins. Other organizations have also lobbied the U.S. Congress for a national shark fin ban.

Imitation shark fin soup — a cheaper alternative — is also now available in Asia, which uses noodles or other gelatinous products similar to the texture of shark fin.

A bowl of imitation shark fin soup.
Photo credit: Ceeseven, CC-BY-SA-4.0

The decline of shark fin soup is in part due to the advocacy work done by late filmmaker Rob Stewart (Sharkwater, Sharkwater Extinction) and Shark Truth, a former project founded by Vancouver-based hua foundation.

What to do if you’re offered shark fin soup

Jackie Wong, Race & Equity Project Director and Director of Communications for hua foundation, proposed an answer to this question.

“I’d invite the person being offered the soup to consider the personal, cultural, and social context in which it is being offered, and then to ask themselves if there may be an opportunity to begin a dialogue about the ethics of shark fishing in that moment,” Wong said. “Maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t. Consider how the moment of ‘isn’t’ is valid … and a moment that doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ environmentalist.”

In the summer of 2007, I attended my friend’s wedding reception in Singapore. Shark fin soup was a starting course. Having recently watched Sharkwater, I declined to eat it and my friend consumed it on my behalf. I’ve never regretted that decision.

The writer Sandra Nomoto confidently turns down a bowl of shark fin soup at a wedding in 2007.
Photo credit: Sandra Nomoto

But the issue extends further than just choosing whether or not to eat shark fin soup.

Tackling shark preservation — and that of other marine animals — requires “continued public education efforts and meaningful engagement with ethnocultural communities that centres self-determination, cultural sensitivity, and autonomy,” Wong said.

With increased awareness and important conversations, anyone can do their part to help end the practice of shark finning.

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