By James Wright, SeaFood Business senior editor
Published on 05 November, 2012
Shark fin soup, in high demand at Asian restaurants worldwide, is yet another example of an animal-based product considered critical to cultural identity and prestige — and worth a lot of money — pitted against emotive environmental conservation efforts.
According to several environmental organizations, shark populations around the world have been decimated, in some cases up to 99 percent of their historical peaks, to supply a dish that is more status symbol than staple. The groups blame a seemingly insatiable demand for shark fins, which in many cases are lopped off the animals at sea while the rest of the body — about 95 percent of its total weight — is tossed overboard, a process known as finning. Each year, an estimated 73 million of the fish, known as an apex predator for its crucial role in the ocean ecosystem, are rendered helpless and left to die.
The soup, which has been part of special celebrations in China dating back several hundred years to the Ming Dynasty yet can be rather bland in flavor, isn’t the only lure. Dried shark fins are also highly valued in Eastern medicine for many purposes, like increasing sexual potency and energy and lowering cholesterol.
As awareness of dwindling shark numbers grows, so do efforts to discourage the flow of product. 2012 could turn out to be the year of the shark: This summer, Illinois became the first inland state to ban the trade of shark fins, joining California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Key port states like New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and New Jersey also have introduced similar legislation or will reintroduce bills in upcoming legislative sessions.
Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, says once California’s shark fin ban goes into effect next year, it will be interesting to see if the bulk of the trade shifts to the East Coast, as traders go port shopping.
“You want shark fishermen to continue fishing. But you also want to keep the huge fins from whale sharks from driving that demand,” she says. “Is there a way to address the trade while continuing to have sustainable fishing for sharks? How do you thread that needle?”
U.S. law has attempted to do just that. Since 2000, finning and possessing or landing shark fins without the carcasses (or if the weight of the fins exceeds 5 percent of the total weight of carcasses found on board) has been banned in U.S. waters. That rule was difficult to enforce, so in 2010, the law was amended to require that all sharks be landed with fins attached, which prevents high-grading and assists in proper species identification.