By Sharon Kwok, Mission Blue Board Director
I’m a Eurasian American raised in Hong Kong. Until recent years, every banquet I attended seemed to include shark fin soup. Although the exact origin of this ostentatious dish is shrouded in mystery, we do know it had to come from China’s southern coastal regions, and it was never a favorite of the Northern Chinese. Therefore l doubt the truthfulness of claims that it was a fancy dish created for the Emperor. Perhaps it was a fancy marketing ploy but we’ll never know for sure. I’ve even heard a version that shark fin soup’s origin was simply the fishermen’s frugal use of their catch. In bygone days, any obviously useful parts would either be sold fresh or salted to survive a trip to inland China. Thus, they figured out a way to make the fins edible, then palatable via the tasty ingredients used in the broth as the fins are virtually tasteless but for its fishiness.
Hawaii’s native population respects their Shark-God ‘Kamoho’ and sharks. So it was fitting that on June 30th 2010, they started an avalanche of legal opposition to this Chinese dish. In 2011, I was involved with lobbying for AB 376, California’s ban on the trade in shark fins. This bill, written by Jared Huffman and Chinese American Paul Fong was met with serious and well-funded opposition due to the size of the older Chinese community in California, many of whom have business interests in the restaurant or dried seafood trade – a trade which often stretched to Asia due to many of the fins from southern American waters funneling through California. Governor Jerry Brown signed AB376 in Oct 2011 and even after several legal attempts to overthrow it, it holds fast.
This movement spread swiftly to other states and even abroad, but it has met the most opposition in Asia. Living in Hong Kong, I’m at Ground Zero of the trade. Fellow advocates and l try to affect change wherever and however we can. From convincing hotels to opt for ‘fin-free’ menus to pressuring airlines to stop transporting fins. We also raise awareness through schools and media. As a whole, we are thrilled to see results and sometimes, big changes such as the latest big victory in Asia which saw Brunei’s Sultan effecting a national ban of all catch-and-landing of sharks as of this June.
The reason for all the fuss isn’t merely humane issues although that should be a strong enough one because most fins come from ‘finning’ rather than as a by-product of fishing. Finning is when sharks are caught only for their fins and their bodies are thrown back into the ocean to suffer a torturous death. This happens because there are insufficient regulations. Fisheries who target fins send their industrial boats out to collect the most high value goods possible and while a pound of edible shark meat might sell for a few U.S. dollars, a pound of premium fin could sell for a few hundred. Since many large shark species take decades to reach sexual maturity and bear but a few young infrequently, these apex predators do not multiply quickly enough to cope with insatiable demands…and because dried fins can be kept indefinitely, fisheries will literally take all they can for the unsustainable trade.
Perhaps a more important reason for putting a stop to this is the preservation of our ocean as we know it. Sharks have been here since the pre-Jurassic and they’re a vital link that maintains the biodiversity of our marine ecology. We know that they’ve never come under the level of predation they’re currently suffering and their numbers are in obvious decline but we don’t know for sure what their disappearance will mean to us. However, do we want to risk it? Dare we? Our oceans cover well over three quarters of Earth’s surface. It helps maintain our climate as well as providing us with water and much of our oxygen. We are custodians of our resources so that future generations may enjoy them. So at this time, one of the most responsible things one can do is to say ‘NO’ to shark fin soup.
Feature Photo: (c) Shawn Heinrichs