This is a feature I wrote for a class about shark-finning and where it stands in our society, especially with new legislation to close any loopholes allowing the fins to enter US markets. Below is the link to the DFP article with the edited version.
I sat alone, inhaling the earthy aromas of fresh ginseng spiked with boiled Dungeness crab, my nervous foot tapping the ground in sync with my rapid heart rate. She came over to me, and carelessly scribbled my order down after I pointed to it on the laminated pages of the menu, before I ordered a giant glass of Pinot Grigio to drink my nerves close to a coma. It tasted like battery acid. My waitress confirmed what I said, “One order of the small shark fin soup with chicken, yes?” I nodded in agreement, my eyes darting around the restaurant in paranoia.
She returned to give me a deep, short porcelain spoon and a pair of plastic chopsticks wrapped in a white paper napkin along with my wine, smiling at me to expose her crooked smile before she sat down a few tables closer to the kitchen to peel apart bok choy leaves.
I walked over to the three levels of glass tanks housing the restaurant’s fish whose fate was stir-fry, hoping that it would serve as a nostalgic reminder to trips to the aquarium as a child, calming my nerves. Instead, it resembled something halfway between Dante’s eight and ninth circle. The aquarium at New Jumbo Seafood Kitchen took up an entire wall, as transparent bodies of shrimp were suspended upside-down and lifeless in their tank, the glass caked with whiskey-colored residue. Nearby, a catfish with snapped off whiskers was buoyed in its own glass house, stuck in the bubbling water filter, staring at me with cloudy gray, empty eyes.
Jilted, I slowly dragged my feet back to my table, back to my glass of the house Grig. Within minutes, a woman with tautly pulled-back black hair wearing the same white crinkled shirt and black polyester vest my waitress had on placed the soup in front of me. I ordered another house white before she had the chance to bend in a slight bow to tell me to enjoy my food.
I tucked into the caramel-hued broth that had pieces of enamel-white chicken floating in it, but couldn’t see the shark fin I expected to see protruding out of the bowl: covered in dripping blood, with the mark from being impaled with a blunt spear still visible.
Tiny straws of dorsal find hung over the edge of my utensil like the legs of some Frankenstein-esque science experiment gone awry. I closed my eyes, brought the spoon to my face and swallowed.
For only twelve dollars, I was eating shark fin soup, one of the most controversial foodstuffs available in the world because of the method of procuring the namesake ingredient. In order to do so, fishermen capture the shark, slice of its dorsal fin and sometimes its tail (if the demand is high enough), and then throw the remainder of the carcass back into the ocean. The shark is unable to swim without these parts, and sinks to the bottom of the ocean to die a slow death, usually by starvation or from being eaten by other animals.
The United States has laws against shark finning in its waters: those who do not comply are sentenced jail time and heavy fines, as well as loss of license. However, there are loopholes in the law that allow fishermen to intercept fins from international waters as well as other fishermen from nations that allow shark finning.
“The practice is abhorrent – to remove fins and then throw a fish overboard is inhumane and absolutely unacceptable,” Gavin Gibbons passionately shouted about during a phone call.
Gibbons is the Director of Media Relations at the National Fisheries Institute, an organization that educates the pescavore public about sustainable fish-eating practices. Advocates of fish consumption, NFI’s website has information ranging from the health benefits of seafood to recipes for spicy bass tacos. The organization targets corporations as well as the individual about what one can do about changing their diet to hopefully change the planet, while condoning the support of fishermen.
“There’s something that needs to be differentiated – the fishing for sharks and their meat and shark finning,” Gibbons continued over shoddy cell phone service. “If you utilize the entire fish – it’s the core component to reasonable and responsible fishing. If you walk about just taking the fins and dumping them back, that’s not sustainable.”
Massachusetts Senator Kerry agrees, which is what prompted the presidential candidate to propose the passage of S.850, the Shark Conservation Act April 22 of this year.
This bill would amend the current law to improve shark conservation and would make it illegal to have control or possession of any shark fin aboard a fishing vessel unless it is attached to the shark’s body it came from, according to the law. If passed, the Act would also make it illegal to transfer any fins from one vessel to another and if fins are aboard a ship that cleans and sections its fish on-site, the fins found are not to exceed five percent of the amount of shark carcass found on the same ship.
Basically, this closes a loophole in the current law. It would make shark fin soup almost impossible to attain in the United States, as prices would soar even higher for restaurants to attain the fin and for consumers to purchase it retail.
Would people in this country really miss the delicacy that is so highly regarded in China and south Asian countries?
MC Slim JB, the food critic for the Boston Phoenix who refuses to expose his name, age or face to anyone, has his own qualms with the dish. Refusing to be heard on the phone in a paranoid precaution that someone might hear his voice and out his identity, JB responds to online questions, first explaining his experiences with the food in China.
“I think shark fin soup is like a lot of luxury goods: the Veblem effect is in full force. It’s expensive mainly because its rare, and it is valued primarily because it’s expensive, enabling the diner/host to consumer/entertain extravagantly in a conspicuous manner. If it were as cheap as Pollock, people wouldn’t get excited about it.”
JB writes for his own blog and was found by the Phoenix editors after posting amateur reviews on the food forum, Chowhound.com. He is in favor of banning finned shark because he doesn’t really care for it himself and finds it an abominable practice.
“Finning seems an egregious example of unsustainable harvesting and animal cruelty. And banning it would set up a black market, which would actually heighten its appeal,” JB explains.
After my second glass of the tart Pinot Grigio that recalled memories of punching a bag of franzia, I felt instantly invincible and able to take on the challenge. I was finished rationalizing my actions the same way one might hear a hitman arguing to him over whether he is justified in his work for the mafia.
The shreds of dorsal fin were glutinous and slippery, tasting more like the chicken stock used as a broth than anything from a fish. It shared the same lack of flavor and excitement as broiled jellyfish; I wouldn’t exactly go hunting a 1000-pound carnivorous monster for it.
What are the fascination with the expensive and the rare even if it comes piled high with intense guilt and a cruelty on the side?
The immediate parallel is foie gras – fatty goose livers that are acquired by force-feeding live poultry such immense portions of grain their legs are snapped under their heavy body weight after they grow to be morbidly obese during their short lifetimes of a few months at most. This practice is far from humane, yet the United States produces almost 340 tons of the liver every year, contributing to almost 2 percent of the worldwide amount.
JB is caught blood-red-handed. “The fact that I eat foie gras would mean that I don’t really have a leg to stand on in accusing other cultures of odious animal cruelty simply for the pursuit of pleasure, but I feel bad about it and ponder a day when I give it up for ethical reasons. I think that consumers of shark fin should, too,” he continues in his email.
“It’s hard to see how you could justify its production as humane. I guess I could defend it somewhat on sustainability grounds, but that argument seems feeble. The real issue is animal cruelty and in that context it’s equally reprehensible,” the critic laments. “It’s a fundamental hypocrisy I have about such foods, a stain on my conscience that I brook because I find the products so delectable.”
So that foie gras is more delicious than the bland, creepy strips of dorsal fin removes the taboo and cruelty aspects of it?
The main difference is that goose livers are farmed; the animals are bred by people, fed by people, slaughtered by people, regardless of whether the entire carcass is used or not. (They’re not). But sharks hunted for their fins are wild creatures in a fragile ecosystem, and the possibility of farming them for their fins sounds like a viable option, but has it’s problems.
Sharks are like people in the way they develop, “slow-growing and maturing, having small amounts of offspring and typically have internal fertilization with their offspring developed borne directly from the mother,” says Jelle Atema, a Netherlands-born professor of Biology at Boston University.
These qualities of shark would make farming impossible, as it would be costly just to raise the animals and their offspring before even being able to slice off their dorsal fin.
The merits of shark finning are hard to argue: the practice is unsustainable and unable to be continued for an extended period of time without depleting the world’s shark populations. The end product also just simply doesn’t taste good enough to throw all morals and guilt aside and bury one’s face in a stew of it.
Although there are people that don’t think that meat should be eaten at all, regardless of whether it’s been massaged to death or simply hacked into cubes of raw meat by a robot to resemble something Chaim Soutine would use as inspiration, the anger over shark-fin soup is not about consuming shark meat or any fish, but about the ability for people to remove themselves from an action so environmentally detrimental and cruel in order to assert themselves as the top of the food chain and social stratosphere.
Hank Chang, a financial analyst from Philadelphia is a Taiwanese-American who has had the dish at a wedding banquet, a common venue for serving shark fin.
“It doesn’t really have any significance to me. It’s good, but not amazing. I certainly wouldn’t pay for it,” Chang said in an email interview, also stating that although he
He explains that what is different in one culture isn’t necessarily bad, simply not the norm. “Fried Oreos and turkeys are a rarity in Asia, but common street food here,” although the qualms of eating a fried sandwich cookie are more calorie-based than ecologically destructive.
“I do believe it’s a waste if you fin the shark and throw the rest away; in the very least, use the rest of the shark for other purposes. It speaks volumes as to our shortsightedness and inability to recognize the effects on global, living resources,” Chang finishes. “However, it’s something that I would eat again if it was presented before me without cost.”
Chang doesn’t eat foie gras, nor does he eat veal. The latter is also under fire as food that is cruelly produced because calves are also force-fed and live in small crates to restrict muscle movement and growth. This makes the meat tender, a staple in almost any Italian, French and American Continental restaurant in Boston.
Chang and JB agree that if shark finning were successfully banned but instead was able to be sustainably caught or farmed, it wouldn’t be such a problem to consume. “I am fairly sure humans will have or already have figured out ways to over-harvest almost everything and growth in the populations suggests that we will far outstrip our natural resources some time in the near future,” explains Chang. “While people need to keep an open mind regarding consuming unusual or different food, that doesn’t justify endangering a species, ecosystem or simply squandering our national resources. If we could farm the ingredient by cloning the tissue for consumption, that’s fine with me.”
“I’m not aware of any attempts of going in the direction of farming sharks,” shrugged Atema, who continued to explain that they are large animals and farming would not be easy. “But finning is a huge waste of resources and it is cruel, like trapping a deer, cutting of its legs and letting them die in a field while wasting the rest of their body which is perfectly good food, let alone that removing the top predator from the ecosystem has unpredictably and serious consequences for the food web.”
Apparently, finning is an unsustainable resource, yet it seems that when the idea of farming sharks for their fins is brought up as an option, people aren’t sure what to do: Support the inhumanity of slicing off an integral part of the shark’s anatomy, turning a top-level predator into defenseless krill but allowing a demand to be met, or not compromise with the bad actors and simply allow a black market to develop?
The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 was proposed by Kerry, a self-proclaimed environmentalist whose promises are reflected in his actions, and has been promised to not only solve enforcement issues of the current law but to help scientific data collection and cease the transfer of shark fins at sea and to allow the United States to take actions against shark-finning nations, according to the NFI website.
Shark finning has led to the decline of many major species, as over 38 million sharks are killed each year by the practice, according to a National Geographic article from 2007. The act has passed in the House of Representatives and is awaiting final action in the Senate, close to being passed.
How will restaurants that serve the soup react to the ban? At Victoria’s Seafood Kitchen, where shark fin soup retails for over $65 a quart, their manager is not convinced that it will cease retail sales in the United States permanently.
Steve Yu from the Canton region of China wears a red, worn Patagonia fleece with his sleeves pushed up above his elbows as he stares out to Commonwealth Ave. on a slow Monday night.
Shark fin soup is not one of the best-selling items on his menu, Yu says in broken English with a smile. He seems more concerned about the cholesterol levels in shark fin rather than how it is hunted.
“It is too expensive for my shop, we are more for college students because of our price point, things being under fifteen dollars for a party of two. However, if you go to Chinatown you will see that many different restaurants offer it and they have customers that come in all the time to eat it,” Yu says as he adjusts a red and gold paper wall calendar that was hanging askew on the bone-white painted walls.
“Rich people use this to keep up looking younger and more healthy and it stays good for a long time because of how it is dried out and frozen. Although I do not have a demand for it, I keep it around in case I need to provide it for someone who asks for it. It is an honorable thing to do as a manager and owner.”
Yu, with spurts of shouting instructions to the chef in Chinese, finishes explaining what he think will come of the potential cut-off of shark products to Chinese restaurants in the States.
“Because there is a demand for it, especially in Chinatown, it is not easy to say that there will not be any more shark fin soup. When there is a banquet for a marriage or someone of high importance comes to visit, I will guarantee that there will soup there. It’s just how it is in some cultures.”
A simple broth laced with some caused me to experience what felt like heart palpitations and instant nausea, mostly because of YouTube-supplied images of finless shark bodies piled on top of ship decks like something out of a surrealist nightmare-scape painting. In an era where people are soliciting the environment on the street and hoping to change the globe by making paper obsolete, shark finning is a tricky taboo. It is a cultural cuisine necessity, like foie gras in French culture or veal in Italian culture, but has irreversible effects on the environment because it is dependent on wild animals.
JB types, “I think eating traditional foods is one of the best ways to get inside the soul of a culture, and that greater experience of the world has many benefits to the individual. It certainly chips away at the tendency that we Americans have to see our culture as ascendant – an idea that many of us cherish who have never actually traveled anywhere to test the theory.”
Yet there are limits that need to be set, which is what prompted the Kerry administration to propose the Shark Conservation Act in hopes that shark-farming or anything continuing to feed into the shark-fin industry is created with the ability for the government to oversee and monitor what is being killed and how. In an era of contradictory opinions regarding the environment, morals and our indulgences colliding, hopefully the sharks will have a fighting chance.
JB wraps up in an email that “making anything forbidden will heighten its appeal in some ways. Consider absinthe: much less exciting now that it is widely available. Forbidden fruit shouldn’t taste better just because it’s forbidden, but it does.”