Shark’s fin encore!

Shark fins for sale in Hong Kong You can hear me talking about eating shark’s fin (or not) on the BBC today (or read the piece here).

While I was writing it, I came across a page I tore out of the South China Morning Post in October last year. It includes a letter from Dr Choo-hoo Giam, a member of the animals committee of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. What is particularly interesting about the letter is that Dr Giam points out the extent to which it is not only the Chinese and their notorious shark’s fin soup that are to blame for the devastation of worldwide shark stocks. The main points Dr Giam makes are as follows:

1. The notorious practice of ‘finning’ (where fishermen slice the fins from live sharks and discard the rest of the creature) does take place, but it is not the norm.  Most fins are removed from sharks after their deaths.

2. Many sharks are caught as bycatch by fishermen chasing tuna, swordfish and prawns – Dr Giam quotes a WWF source as saying that 100,000 sharks are caught as bycatch every year in the Mediterranean alone.

3. Many poor artisanal fishermen (and it’s artisanal fishermen who catch 80% of the world’s sharks) are too poor to throw away the bodies of the sharks – which are sold onto local markets.

4. Shark is widely eaten, including in Britain as ‘rock salmon’ or ‘huss’, in Germany as sea eel, and in Australia as ‘flake’. Indeed, ‘sharks are caught by all nations and races, for their meat. Fins are a valuable by-product.’

Dr Giam ends the letter by saying: ‘Campaigning to change the Asian palate is wrongly conceived. Shark’s are dying because of universal consumption and they will continue to die and deplete.’

Frankly, the last statement looks like a flimsy attempt at justification: it may be patronising for Westerners to blame the Chinese for eating shark’s fin when they eat shark meat, tuna, cod… and countless other endangered fish themselves, but that’s hardly an argument for everyone to go on eating shark’s fin soup. And, of course, the letter was published in the main English-language newspaper of Hong Kong, which is the world HQ of the shark’s fin trade, and where eating fins is very much part of banquet culture. But the letter as a whole certainly puts Western campaigners’ ire about shark’s fin into some perspective.

What do you blog readers think?

8 Responses to “Shark’s fin encore!”

  1. Susannah

    I love that you had the guts to do something so uncomfortable. At least you know your conscience is working!

  2. Jez

    What some eat in the UK as “Huss” or “Rock Salmon” is Lesser Spotted Dogfish or Bull Huss and although a small shark, it is not the same thing as you’d get a shark’s fin from. There are plenty of “Doggies” around and maybe eating them more would take some pressure off other species. A visit to a french supermarket will reveal piles of skinned “Rosette” on the ice. Can taste a bit of ammonia sometimes but perhaps we should make it more popular? Fry it hard and pour chili oil over it? I’m going to give it a go.
    But true enough about condemning the chinese for eating fins…..you can’t if you eat the fish yourselves.

  3. Mart

    I’ve become so pessimistic about seafood I just don’t eat it anymore and I think a lot more people should do that. I’m still surprised at the food you get in restaurants, even good ones. They are all created round a piece of animal protein. Can we get a bit more inventive please. It will be good for the wallet, animals, health and the environment. How about covering chinese (semi) vegetarian food for a book Fuchsia? I haven’t really come across a good book on that topic. I bet there is a wealth of things to discover.

  4. Emily

    I agree with Mart. Eating from fishing stocks that are under less pressure (e.g., Alaskan vs. Atlantic cod) just shifts the pressure around. There are too many humans eating too much seafood. I hope we can all take responsibility for eating less of it, full stop, even where it’s a “cultural” thing to eat a particular food. Just as the Japanese need to stop killing whales for food, and the Chinese need to take responsibility for their role in killing sharks, the British need to eat less cod and chips (of course it will help their health as a side benefit). That way, Westerners can’t be accused of racism or hypocrisy.

    This is going to take more education, though. Many New Englanders I talk to even these days are sincerely surprised to hear that cod is extremely over-fished. (I haven’t been in the UK long enough to know what the average person’s awareness is.)

  5. Fuchsia

    Thanks Susannah! But the problem for me remains in deciding where to draw the line. I think what we all tend to do is to take a stand on one issue, which makes us feel good, but rather obscures the fact that the rest of our behaviour does not live up to the same ethical standards. It’s always annoyed me when people express passionate opposition to hunting, but still eat factory-farmed meat and and endangered fish – fox-hunting is conspicuous cruelty, but it’s trivial in comparison with the other issues. So for me, not eating shark’s fin really is a pathetic gesture – the real question is, should I be eating any fish at all?

    Jez – thanks for your clarification.

    Mart, I rather agree with you and find I eat less and less fish and seafood, and tend not to order it in restaurants. I stopped eating bluefin tuna some time ago – in fact, the last time I ate it was after I’d decided not to, and I did it to be polite, because the person I was dining with insisting on ordering it (despite the fact the menu actually pointed out that it was critically endangered and best avoided!), and I felt so awful afterwards that I realised I couldn’t repeat the experience. And thanks also for your suggestion.

    Emily – I agree about education. And that’s really where my point about TALKING about it (in the BBC piece) comes in. When we politely avoid recognising that we really shouldn’t be eating many types of fish at all, and should be cutting back on most others, we are all complicit in a kind of conspiracy of silence and ignorance. It’s worth noting that it was only when a bunch of celebrities spoke out about bluefin tuna that a number of prominent chefs were shamed into removing it from their menus.

    The thing that continues to baffle me is how one government department can warn about over-fishing, while another department urges everyone to eat two portions of fish a week for their health. Idiotic! Where is the joined-up thinking on this?

  6. Peter

    Ms. D –

    Since reading Taras Grescoe’s “Bottomfeeder,” have made a concerted effort to eat closer to the start/”bottom” of the marine food chain: smelts, sardines, mussels, etc. and avoid larger species including those likely sporting toxins of questionable quantity and/or endangered.

    And adopted a leafier diet more than anything else. As for government suggestions about 2 portions of fish, there’s also very little clarification as to type: wild salmon in promoting omega 3 versus farmed, etc. So people traipse ignorantly along while consuming species such as tilapia which doesn’t benefit one’s constitution if at all.

    As for shark’s fin, been there, done that – know the whole ritualized ceremony of ordering it b/c familial or friends want to preserve “face” – as if eating bland cartilage by itself would be an appealing prospect. It’s in the seasoning and accoutrements as you well know that actually provide the flavour of the dish itself and not the fin, but what do you do when people of Chinese descent (b/c they’re born w/in the context) don’t readily believe you when informed that the seemingly ubiquitous Ajinomoto MSG didn’t exist prior to 1909? Trying to impress upon such skeptical souls that using fresh ingredients w/ a proper round of spices would do well to render a pleasing creation instead of relying on a flavouring “enhancer” usually meets derision from personal experience.

    The claim(s) that this Dr. Giam makes are as hollow and dubious as the Japanese justification for whale hunting for “scientific research purposes.”

    Good on ya for standing up for what you believe in – integrity bests all else…

  7. AER

    Fuscia,

    My question is not exactly on topic, but have you heard of boiling skate wing cartilage? It is not a substitute for sharks fin, exactly, but it does make a rich, satisfying broth that can be enhanced by boiling it together with chicken.

    I discovered this use for it by accident. Skate wing comes cheap in NY but it’s delicious, and it’s nice to be able to use the whole fish.

  8. Crunchynut

    I’d rather eat 粉丝汤。 The problem with Shark’s fin is it’s so un-sustainable and un-ethic. To kill the top predator of the ocean (which is always lower in numbers than the others) just for two fins. Fish eating is OK, as long as you know which kind to order. My friends and I used to carry a little card in our purses that tells you which fish is not endangered. Or, better still, order those under-rated fish that sells really cheap and tasts really good. Many fish caught were not desirable on the market therefore chucked back into the sea! I think the key is respect life. Try to use all parts of the animal in cooking, not just the leanest finest part, and have some basic knowledge about them. Food should provide nutrient and flavour. Sharks fin, however, scores poorly on both. It not that nutritious, and tastes not better than mung-bean vermicelli soup. The Chinese believe they have some magical power.As a scientist, although I admit part of Chinese medicine is very good, the other part is quite nonsense to me, like the donkey’s skin is good for women because donkey’s are stubborn and carry babies for more than 10 month therefore donkey skin is good for women’s fertility.
    Enjoy food, but be sustainable, or at least try to be. Otherwise, why not bring in tiger hunting, ivory trade, rhino-killing etc altogether?

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