In 2009, I spent four months working in Hong Kong. In the shopping center directly across the street from my apartment in Causeway Bay was a restaurant called Shark Fin City. Forget the slimy, gelatinous specialty of the house—to devotees of the cause of shark protection the restaurant’s audacious name was enough to induce nausea.
As has been exhaustively reported in the international press, the seemingly bottomless demand for shark fin soup in China and other Asian countries has imperiled shark populations around the world. An estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year (see GHRI article page 57), mostly by longline fishing operations and almost exclusively for their fins. In some waters, shark populations have declined up to 90 percent. What’s more, the widespread practice of shark “finning,” cutting the valuable fins off of sharks and dumping their still live bodies back into the ocean, is barbaric.
As a result, the world’s shark populations have been pushed to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Though no one knows for sure what the result of removing the apex predator from the world’s waters will be, we could see anything from exploding populations of stingrays (sharks are a main predator of rays) to a collapse in the food chain.
Even in the era of global warming angst this is head-turning stuff. Because the consumption of shark fin soup is such an ordinary, accepted part of life in Asia, however, the almost gleeful appeal of a restaurant name like Shark Fin City barely registers with locals. Hong Kong is, after all, the hub of the industry as well as the city through which at least 50 percent of the world’s shark’s fin trade flows.
Look closely at places like Shark Fin City, however, or talk to the people who actually eat shark fin soup and you start to notice something amazing. Almost every aspect of the entire $300 million to $1 billion a year industry is predicated on a series of lies.
I didn’t come into this story to bash anyone’s cultural traditions or culinary peculiaritiesAs a member in good/bad standing of the Emasculated Picky Eaters League, I tend to fall over myself in respectful deference to the inexplicable gastronomic preferences of others. People could eat poached penguin faces for all I care, just as long as they don’t try to push it on me at dinner
Nor am I eager to engage what The Economist recently called “China’s fierce nationalist sensitivity.” Like everyone else, I saw the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and was appropriately freaked out. And I’ve had enough politically correct training to know that this endless “blame all of the world’s ills on China” business is both stupid and hypocritical. Just yesterday I drove my car less than half-a-mile to the store for beef products double-wrapped in plastic bags, and then turned up the heat in my house when I got home because it was kind of chilly outside and I don’t like wearing long sleeves indoors.
Nevertheless, after more than a month of talking to experts, digging up articles on recent marine atrocities, and even dispatching a trusted associate to sample the demon’s broth in its homeland, the load of bullsurrounding the international regulation, historical legacy, and modern demand for shark fin soup got too big and smelly for me to ignore. It turns out that what you believe about shark fin soup is largely a matter of what lie you’re willing to swallow.
The Lie of International Conservation
The most significant news of the shark year came this past March in Doha, Qatar. That’s where the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) convened to consider proposals advanced by the United States and other countries to place international protections on eight declining shark species. CITES was created in 1975 to prevent animal species from becoming extinct through international trade. With 175 member nations, it has been described as a powerful tool in protecting threatened speciesRecently, however, the group appears to have been infiltrated by the vast commercial interests it was set up to thwart.
The Doha conference turned out to be a disaster for the sharks but a great success for those who get rich selling their fins. Their interests were defended chiefly by delegations from Japan and China, which lobbied successfully to defeat every shark protection measure offered. This was accomplished by making a handful of specious arguments and by dealing for a lot of votes from countries such as Libya and Venezuela that wouldn’t know a shark’s fin from a bear’s paw, another delicacy prized by certain Asian eaters.
“The failure at Doha forces me to admit an ugly truth, namely, that CITES has nothing to do with protecting threatened species from unsustainable trade,” wrote Ran Elfassy, director of Hong Kong-based “Shark Rescue,” in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “Countries like Japan and China…let commercial interests call the shots.”
The conservationist hand-wringing was noble but also somehow pathetic. As Ecuadorian delegate Javier Rosero told the AP about Japan’s horse-trading, “I have been talking to Japan and they say, ‘What do you need? What kind of project are you able to do?’ The Japanese come to make business and the States come to complain.”
The naked wheeling and dealing at CITES mirrored Japan’s infamous International Whaling Commission behavior, ruthlessly exposed in the 2009 documentary The CoveThat film featured former Dominica IWC representative Atherton Martin laying bare the process by which Japan built Dominica a $22 million – fisheries complex – as “thanks” for siding with Japan on whale hunting votes. The complex ended up being used to store chickens.
The Japanese at CITES denied outright vote buying, though Masanori Miyahara, chief counselor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, did admit that Japanese funds were dispersed to developing countries. “Participation is very important for them to learn what is going on internationally,” Miyahara told the AP. “They use the money for tuna regional fisheries management and other meetings. CITES is one of them.”
Vote buying is viewed as dastardly cheating by western conservationists. Since it seems such an effective way of winning arguments, however, it occurs to me that it might be smart for those interested in shark preservation to adopt the same tactics.
Most of the proposals at Doha were only narrowly defeated. If all that’s needed to save the sharks are a few votes from the St. Lucias and Grenadas of the world, why not just pay for them with favors and public works the way the Japanese allegedly do? It might feel slimy, but sometimes you have to fight dirty deals with your own pile of mud.
“The American delegation was not very passionate about anything,” said the regally named Josef Baron Kerckernick zur Borg (“Jupp” to all who know him), president of the Shark Research Institute, an eco-tourism outfit in Princeton, New Jersey. “I don't think they had much fighting spirit in them. The Europeans were not all speaking with the same voice. Of course, Spain was representing the EU because they are holding the presidency at the moment. That was a bit like having the fox guard the hen house. Spain is, after all, the largest exporter of shark fins in Europe.”
The lie from shark-hunting nations is that they approach events like CITES in the spirit of international cooperation and scientific inquiry. Yet, all they really care about is keeping the shark fin floodgate open so they can continue to make scads of money. The lie from the other side is that they’re doing everything possible to stop the trade in shark fins – in addition to Spain, the UK-based TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network lists Argentina, France, New Zealand, Mexico, the UK, and, yes, the United States among the world’s top 20 shark-catching nations.
Making a fix all the more difficult is that shark protectionists’ reluctance to act with extreme prejudice is firmly tied to their belief in the second lie of shark fin soup.
The Lie of Cultural Tradition
“Shark fin soup has long played a centrl part in traditional Chinese culture, often being served at weddings and banquets. But demand for the soup has surged as increasing numbers of mostly Chinese middle class search for ways to spend their newfound wealth.”
That description of shark fin soup is taken from an online story in the London Evening Standard, but some iteration of its boilerplate simplicity appears on countless Web sites in that distressing way of cut-and-paste Web reportage. (I swear, when the era of citizen “journalism” dies I will unleash a frothy, golden stream upon its grave from a formidably satisfying height.)
In articles published around the word, China’s voracious demand for shark fin soup is routinely defended as the expression of an ages-old Chinese tradition. As a result, social troglodytes who oppose shark fin soup consumption open themselves up to charges of racism or, at the very least, cultural insensitivity.
An example of this tricky cultural dance comes from Chinese Canadian Claudia Li, founder of an anti-shark fin soup organization called Shark Truth. In an interview with the Vancouver Courier, Li compared eating shark fin soup at wedding banquets with the North American custom of eating turkey at Thanksgiving. This type of cultural relativism has been an effective gambit in persuading leftie progressives like me to “understand” or even “empathize” with a society so rich, ancient, and mysterious that its ethnic articulation depends upon the decimation of the world’s sharks.
Trouble is, none of this is true.
It was Shark Fin City that first tipped me off. Specifically, it was a line on the Shark Fin City page on popular Hong Kong dining Web site openrice.com that announced that the restaurant’s mission was “to create a new generation of shark fin eating culture.”
Create a new generation? Why would a restaurant in the capital of the shark’s fin universe need to create a market for such a long-standing tradition? To extend Claudia Li’s comparison, this would be like asking us to imagine Bob Evans deciding it needed to introduce Americans to turkey on Thanksgiving.
A number of sources trace the origin of shark fin soup to the Ming Dynasty, when it was an exotic dish reserved for emperors and their serf-oppressing cronies. This sounds reasonable, but it also made me wonder how such a dish could have maintained widespread popularity in a country that has been as poor as China has been for the past two centuries, and in which the communist government was so ferociously effective in stamping out all traces of privilege among the rank and file.
“I have a conspiracy theory that shark fin soup is pushed by restaurant people so they can increase their sales volume,” says Clement Yui-Wah Lee, a bespectacled, fast-talking computer science instructor from Hong Kong now working in New Jersey. Earlier this year Lee became a folk hero to shark defenders after he chanced upon a gruesome Internet video of a “finned” whale shark that had been dragged ashore to die in the Philippines. The video had been shot and posted by Chinese tourists on a dive holiday.
After seeing the video, Lee was so appalled by his countrymen’s nonchalant attitude toward the practice of finning that he set up a Facebook.com campaign calling on engaged Chinese couples to leave shark fin soup off the menu at their wedding banquets. A major Hong Kong newspaper ran his story on the front page and almost overnight Lee’s Facebook.com community grew to 15,000.
“Shark fin soup is popular because it was learned from Hong Kong twenty years ago,” Lee told me. “And even if 500 years ago some Chinese were eating it, this doesn’t mean it’s a tradition we have to follow. Chinese people don’t bind women’s feet anymore because we know it’s wrong.”
Lee is right. The Chinese don’t bind women’s feet anymore. It is just as true that the menu for the wedding feast of the Guangxu emperor in 1889 included no shark product of any kind. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter. Even if the historical justification for shark fin soup is pure flotsam, it doesn’t change the fact that today’s Chinese are chowing the stuff by the Spanish boatload and that they’re doing so out of some inescapable servitude to a universal Darwinian aspiration and deep-seated human impulse for status that not only makes gaudy displays of wealth understandable from a sociological perspective but also sort of inevitable and at some point not even really their fault anymore, right?
As my Chinese friends might say, “Ne yau mo gau choi ah!” which loosely translates, “You must be out of your mind!”
Clement Lee is no expert on Chinese culinary history but Fuchsia Dunlop is. Her stellar 2008 food memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper not only covers Chinese cuisine from ancient recipes for owl, jackal, leopard fetus, orangutan lips, and ovarian fat from the Chinese forest frog (seriously), it breaks down such customs as “the exchange of fine foods (as a) well established system of subtle bribery.”
A fluent Mandarin speaker, Dunlop was the first westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, China’s leading cooking school. She is a Chinese restaurant consultant and contributor to Gourmet, Saveur and The New Yorker. Even cooler, she was once cast in a Chinese TV commercial because the director liked her “mysterious eyes.” (They’re green.)
I phoned Dunlop in London and found her every bit as informative and likable as her book. Though she admitted she has no idea how far back common consumption of shark fin soup goes, she told me that my belief that the modern taste for it is largely a creation of marketing is “both right and wrong.”
“Of course most people in China would never dream of eating something so expensive,” she said, explaining that the recent shark fin soup boom was picked up from southern China in the 1990s. “Because it was Hong Kong and the special economic zones in the south that were the first to get rich, Cantonese food in the early ’90s was the prestige cuisine in ChinaThat is where the business entertaining went on.”
This may be true, but it leads to the third fallacy of shark fin soup – that it’s a luxury item conferring status on consumers and reflective of China’s growing affluence. What may have been true in 1995 is not even close to reality today. Pre-packaged frozen shark fin soup now sells in Hong Kong grocery stores for as little as US$1.40. In 2008 in Taiwan, journalist Lisa Ling reported finding shark fin products in gas station mini-marts. So much for prestige
One of the most famous places in China to eat shark fin soup is Tim Fat restaurant in Macau, a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong. Tim Fat is a hole-in-the-wall joint with white tiled walls and cheap tables packed together as tightly as possible. Customers shout shark fin soup orders at sweaty waiters based on the price of the bowl. “I want a fifty dollar!” “Bring us an eighty dollar!” The higher the price, the more items in the soup or the richer the broth. The cheapest bowl of shark fin soup is wun tsai chi, the rough term for “street vendor soup,” which sells for twenty dollars.
Those luxury prices, by the way, are in Macau patacas or equivalent Hong Kong dollars. At current exchange rates Tim Fat’s eighty-dollar soup goes for US$10.; the fifty for US$6.50.; the wun tsai chi, which comes with a flimsy plastic bowl and spoon, for US$2.50. . Not exactly prices to impress prospective business partners or future in-laws.
To get a better handle on the scene at Tim Fat, I called on a local colleague, Virginia Lau. In addition to living in Hong Kong, Lau possesses the distinct advantage of being Chinese, and therefore unafraid of words like cartilage, blood, knuckle, snout, and ovarian frog fat when they pop up on menus.
An afternoon of canvassing diners waiting in a long line to get into Tim Fat revealed a surprising lack of ceremony surrounding the soup. . Far from feeling that they were treating themselves to a rare feast, eaters seemed almost blasé, as though they were waiting in line for a slice of pizza or an eye exam at the DMV.
Mr. Tang (24 years old): Not especially. We just wanted to try it out. It’s like visiting a museum when you visit this place.
Mrs. Lin (34 years old): Yes, but it wasn’t important. It’s just that all seafood restaurants put shark fin soup on the set menu for wedding banquets. I don’t think guests would have cared if we hadn’t served it.
Lau: How do you feel about the recent petitions against eating shark’s fin?
Ms. Chan (28 years old): Are you referring to the Youtube.com clip where a shark was thrown back into the water after getting its fins cut off? Well, I guess these things happen. But it’s not like we eat it every day. I think it’s OK to eat it once in a while.
Such casual disregard for the brutality evident in that infamous Youtube.com video of the finned whale shark in the Philippines may seem monstrous, but as Fuchsia Dunlop noted in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, “The Chinese don’t generally divide the animal world into the separate realms of pets and edible creatures.”
“When I was living in China, animal cruelty was just not an issue,” Dunlop told me. “There was no kind of emotional identification with animals at all.”
For most Chinese, there’s no difference between eating a wild animal or a domesticated one. A shark might as well be a cow, or a hamster. As travel writer Maarten Troost notes: “The Chinese have an expression: ‘We eat everything with four legs except the table, and everything with two legs except the person’ They mean it, too.”
So, the Chinese are hungry, numerous, unsentimental, subject to the same insidious, aspirational marketing forces as everyone else. With only lie number four left to contend with, I had to admit things weren’t going swimmingly.
Assuming that the usual volunteer bleeding hearts are going to step up and stop the shark carnage simply isn’t realistic. There are lots of volunteer bleeding hearts doing that already and their efforts have difficulty competing against commercial concerns that can spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying in order to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.
One of those volunteer bleeding hearts, Mary O’Malley, a diver based in Del Ray Beach, Florida, co-founded the Shark Safe Network, a framework organization that connects more than 25 shark conservation groups. Less than two minutes into our phone conversation, O’Malley mentioned Hong Kong and I started in with my whole downer routine about Shark Fin City, unsentimental Chinese eaters, poached penguin faces, and all the rest. O’Malley barely heard me.
“Hong Kong is just on fire over the whole shark fin issue,” she said, referencing Clement Lee and the Youtube.com video of the finned whale shark in the Philippines. “It’s really making a difference. People there are saying shark fin consumption will drop drastically in the next year or two.”
Getting a handle on shark fishery yields or shark’s fin consumption in China is extremely tricky. Matt Rand of the Pew Environment Group, which has vigorously promoted the shark protection agenda,answered my questions about shark fin soup in Hong Kong by saying, “I have not seen any evidence that shows a decline in consumption.”
Nevertheless, O’Malley and others insist that anecdotal evidence is strong, that a movement is building, and that some dining habits are changing. One new piece of evidence supporting O'Malley’s claims is the June 2010 debut of the documentary Sharkwater in Hong Kong. The movie came out in 2007, so three years later it will finally be shown to an audience of soup eaters. Question is how big of an audience will it find?
“Chun Ming is a popular time when companies organize big dinners at seafood restaurants and have shark’s fin on the menu,” says Silvy Pun, World Wildlife Fund press officer in Hong Kong. “We’ve been trying to get companies to support our cause by not serving shark's fin during Chun Ming. So far, 56 corporations are in agreement.”
“There’s good stuff starting to happen,” O’Malley assured me. “What’s going on in Hong Kong is really encouraging.”
Not two hours after I hung up with O’Malley an e-mail arrived from Virginia Lau. Another development in Hong Kong. Virginia and I got on Skype.
“I figured out why I haven’t been able to get in touch with the owners at Shark Fin City,” Virginia said. For two weeks I’d been after her to get us an interview with the people actually pushing and profiting from shark fin soup, and for two weeks she’d been striking out.
“Why is it so hard to get these guys on the phone?” I asked for the second or third time. “Just go down there and talk to them in person.”
“The problem is that the restaurant has gone out of business.”
“What are you talking about? I was on their Web site last week.”
“The Shark’s Fin City in Causeway Bay is closed down. You can’t go there anymore. It’s gone. In fact, three of the four Shark Fin City branches around Hong Kong have recently closed.”
I signed off Skype. I sifted through my notes. More than 200 pages of interviews, Internet articles, video transcripts. Finned sharks washed up on beaches. Soulless businessmen cheating naïve do-gooders at international summits. Rapacious hordes gulping down fins faster than they could be pulled out of the ocean.
It was a big, bloody pile and all of it set up the perfect ending to my story. The lie of hope. The death of optimism. The extinction of one of the most superbly designed and biologically successful creatures in the history of earth.
And now, for the first time since I’d invested a majority portion of my existential dread in shark fin soup, somebody wasn’t buying it.