For many people, few words illicit fear as easily as “shark”. Thanks to popular portrayals in films like Jaws, much of our discourse around these animals has been irrationally hostile, leading them to become more vilified than any of the planet’s other top predators. However, a look at the facts reveals that the “demon fish” is not as worthy of notoriety as you might think. All over the world, estimates suggest that they kill 10 of us every year. You’re more likely to be killed by a falling coconut on your way to the beach. We, on the other hand, kill 100 million of them. With sharks at the top of the food chain and slow to reproduce, this slaughter is utterly unsustainable and potentially disastrous for the planet. The reason is almost exclusively down to demand for one particular product - shark fin soup.
Shark fin soup was introduced to the Chinese nobility during the Song Dynasty, in the early 10th century. An expensive delicacy, reserved only for the wealthy and powerful, serving the dish was supposed to be a mark of hospitality and respect for your guests. Provided at banquets alongside abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw, shark’s fins became integral to celebration. The fins also played a crucial role in traditional medicine and are believed to be beneficial for “rejuvenation, appetite enhancement and blood nourishment”. With such beliefs so prevalent, it’s little wonder that shark fins became central to much of Chinese culture.
As globalisation began to take effect in the twentieth century, a new middle class began emerging in China. As people started to enjoy more disposable income, items that had previously been the territory of the rich became more accessible than ever before. More families could now afford to purchase and serve shark fin soup and demand for the product exploded. Today, it is available in Chinese restaurants all over the world and is eaten in huge quantities, though still almost exclusively as part of a significant event.
As far as taste goes, the dish itself often prompts confusion from the uninitiated. Despite the status of the ingredient, shark fins are almost entirely devoid of flavour, instead prized for their gelatinous and stringy texture. Typically served in a broth based on either chicken or pork, the look of the dish is almost uniformly underwhelming. It is clear that shark fin soup is very much all style, no substance.
Though its defenders insist that the dish forms an integral part of Chinese tradition, the realities of the practice are indisputably horrific. During the 1980s, when the industry was really beginning to build momentum, videos surfaced of sharks being taken from the water and having their fins sliced off before been thrown overboard. Since the fins are the most prized parts of the animal, the body was simply discarded to save room in the ships’ holds. Unable to swim, the still-living animals either suffocated or were eaten alive by other sea creatures. The cruelty on display prompted an outcry and stricter legislation, but the practice is still prolific across the world’s oceans. That finning continues to take place is almost exclusively down to demand for shark fin soup.
Aside from the barbarity involved in harvesting fins, there are more global implications of the continued persecution of sharks. Estimates state that one-third of oceanic shark species are critically endangered. Species such as the scalloped hammerhead and oceanic whitetip have had their numbers reduced by 99 per cent in the last four decades. Sharks are apex predators, so removing them from an ecosystem can have disastrous results for every level of the ocean food chain. Impacting our oceans in such a way ultimately affects all life on earth.
There are also human, as well as global, consequences of shark fishing. Aside from the long-term economic impacts of extorting ill-managed fisheries for coastal communities around the world, eating shark can actually be extremely dangerous. Due to the high levels of pollution present in the world’s oceans, much marine life is contaminated with dangerous levels of mercury. Thanks to a phenomenon known as bioaccumulation, the further up the food chain you eat, the higher the levels of the toxin you will find. Eating a top predator like a shark, therefore, potentially exposes diners to an increased risk of mercury poisoning. Not only is shark fin soup disastrous for the environment, but it’s potentially hazardous for people too.
While shark fin soup remains unsustainably popular, the world is slowly beginning to take notice. Many countries, including the EU, India and South Africa, have banned finning in their waters, decreeing that sharks must be landed with their fins still attached. Some nations have gone even further. In 2009, the Republic of Palau, designated the entire 600,000 square kilometres of its waters the world’s first “shark sanctuary”. In this area, roughly the size of France, no shark fishing of any kind is permitted.
Work is also being carried out on the ground in China, raising awareness of the cruelty and pointlessness of the practice. Some Chefs have pioneered artificial shark fins, and sports stars such as basketball player Yao Ming, have publically decried the dish. While shark fins continue to be sold across China, it is estimated that internationally coordinated awareness campaigns have helped reduce public demand by as much as 25 per cent. Progress may be slow, but there is evidence that the tide is beginning to turn.
It remains to be seen whether our efforts to save shark species around the world are too little, too late. With fish stocks all around the world under intense pressure as a result of overfishing, sharks are by no means the only marine species at risk of extinction. It is indisputable that if nothing changes, we will lose some of the most iconic animals that the world has ever seen. “Jaws” may have made them villains, but there is little doubt that they are now in need of saving. A world without sharks is a bleaker one for all of us.