More auspicious than delicious, shark fin is rubbery in both taste and texture. While its flavor is muted, a bowl of shark fin soup says plenty in traditional Chinese culture: The hosts have money and they're generous enough to spread it around.
But in Asia, the soup's culinary home turf, the dish is increasingly regarded as, well, tasteless. Anti-finning advocates, armed with gruesome facts about threatened shark species, are attacking shark fin's reputation as a status-boosting delicacy. Their mission: to see the culinary tradition die off before the sharks do.
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"These shark fin restaurants are everywhere in Asia," said Iris Ho, a campaign manager with Humane Society International. "But the issue has picked up speed because people more easily come into contact with shark fin soup than, say, tiger bone wine or rhino horns. Not eating it is a choice they can easily make."
To many elders within China and the Chinese diaspora, a wedding without shark fin soup is like a New Year's party without champagne. To some, the dish is so integral to business outings and big-ticket banquets that its absence suggests a snub toward guests. Even non-Chinese in Southeast Asia's business classes have embraced the soup for its status-boosting properties.
"It's a menu for emperors. They say it brings you luck," said Jirayu Ekkul, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Love Wildlife Foundation. "I've seen plenty of weddings where, even though they're not Chinese, they feel they have to have it."
But the anti-finning camp is buoyed by a slew of major victories. Basketball star Yao Ming, celebrity royalty in China, has publicly urged China's government to ban shark fin consumption. Last year, China's Communist Party vowed to phase out shark fin soup from official functions. Taiwan, the fourth-largest shark fin market, has legally forbidden fishermen from sawing off shark fins and dumping the carcass overboard. The same rule applies to boatmen in European Union waters.
State-controlled media outlet The People's Daily, seen as a window into Party-line thought, backed the ban and lamented the deaths of endangered sharks. Both wildlife groups and China's own officialdom contend that 95 percent of shark fin consumption takes place in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But Hong Kong is the true hub with more than 22 million pounds of shark fin products imported into the city each year, according to Hong Kong government figures.
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Shark fin is singled as particularly destructive because fishermen often hack off sharks' fins and wastefully chuck their carcasses into the sea. Unable to properly maneuver without fins, the sharks bleed out and sink to the ocean floor.
The latest research into endangered shark populations, recently published in the journal Marine Policy, contends that a whopping 100 million, and perhaps up to 273 million, are killed each year. At this clip, several sought-after species — the scalloped hammerhead, the porbeagle and the oceanic whitetip — may not be able to reproduce fast enough to stave off extinction.
The premier international body regulating the wildlife trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna or CITES, meets in Bangkok this month to decide whether to more tightly regulate their catch and sale.