The shark in the soup



The global trade in shark fins is largely driven by the Chinese demand for shark fin soup. According to Michael Aw, founding director of OceanNEnvironment and a shark expert, over 80 per cent of shark fins are consumed primarily in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group states that Hong Kong alone handles at least 50 per cent to as much as 80 per cent of the world trade in shark fin. They have also found a significant mismatch in a comparison of some national shark landings data and Hong Kong fin import data.

They conclude that tens of millions of shark fins ‘missing’ from the landings data are in fact appearing in Hong Kong, which does not provide a detailed report of the extent of shark finning undertaken by fishermen.

Shark fin soup is an Asian delicacy that symbolises wealth and prosperity. Otherwise known as an emperor dish, it was historically served only to wealthy people. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost up to $100 in high-end restaurants.

“Serving shark fin is a way to honour guests. Since it’s expensive, it shows that you want to spoil your friends and show off that you can afford such luxury. Asia is seeing huge growth in their spending power, and more people can now afford shark fin,” Ran Elfassy, founder of Shark Rescue, says.

“Since I was 10, I have been told by my teachers and environmentalists that sharks are dying out there. And till today, they are still saying the same thing. It’s not like I eat shark fin soup everyday anyway, so really, what difference does it make,” says Hung Leung Chee, a 24-year-old Hong Konger.

Conversly, Ben Birt, a marine campaigner of the Australian Marine Conservation Society says: “It is difficult to know where to start when you are trying to change a culture but it is a simple fact that if nothing is done and people continue to eat shark fin soup, there will no longer be any sharks left. And of course no more shark fin soup. The sensible thing would be to stop eating it now and save the species.”

The year 2010 is an auspicious year for 27-year-old Michelle Tang and her 29-year-old fiancé, Tan Ting Feng. The Singaporean couple will be holding their wedding banquet at Swissotel The Stamford in Singapore this October. Needless to say, shark fin soup was on their menu.

“It has always been a customary tradition for us Chinese to have shark fin soup on special occasions,” Tang says.

Sharks harm people so I really don’t see why we can’t eat them. They taste so good!

Unfortunately for them, Swissotel The Stamford no longer serves shark fin soup to their customers. In 1990, Fairmont Singapore and its sister property, Swissotel The Stamford proactively launched its Green Partnership program, a commitment to reducing their hotels’ impact on the environment. The program aims to save Singapore’s environment, and promote responsible tourism. In December 2008, Fairmont Singapore removed Chilean Sea Bass and Blue Fin Tuna from its menu. Last year, shark fin soup was also taken out from various Chinese restaurants in the hotel complex, including Szechuan Court.

“Asians’ affinity with shark fin soup is more of a cultural dilemma rather than a culinary,” says Carlos Monterde, Hotel Manager of Fairmont Singapore.

“And so far, the changes in our menu did not reflect negative results in our banquet. In fact, we are pleased to note that couples who are planning their wedding banquets at the Raffles City Convention Centre including organisations conducting their events at our hotels’ meeting venue are quite receptive to this eco-friendly change.”

As the struggle to save sharks reaches to new heights, Fairmont Singapore’s banquet team served 600 complimentary bowls of eco-friendly and equally delicious soups to the public in the course of 3 days in early October 2009. The soups served were Double-boiled Herbal Ginseng Soup with Organic Pumpkin and Silky Bean Curd and Bamboo Fungus, a more sustainable replacement for shark fin soup.

“We believe that chefs in hotels and restaurants play pivotal roles as gatekeepers to a more sustainable seafood preference,” Monterde says. “Chefs are catalysts in spreading awareness about the essence of marine animals conservation and they have the responsibility to influence diners’ culinary preferences.”

Tang says that she is not upset that the restaurant has implemented an economical change in their menu.

“If the chefs are able to substitute the fin with something else and still retain its taste, I’m fine with that too. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. At the end of the day, real or fake shark fin, I’m only just sticking to my family tradition.”

Shirley Chong, a Singaporean in her 70s, says she likes the taste of the soup, and believes it has medicinal value. Contrary to popular belief, the taste and nutrients of the soup are purely derived from other ingredients such as chicken or pork broth, and none from the fin itself, most of which is cartilage. However, its appeal is due to the inaccurate notion that sharks do not get cancer.

Shark Rescue found Ran Elfassy explains that while sharks do get cancer, “there is no scientific evidence showing that shark tissue, especially cartilage, has any protective benefits when it comes to cancer”. Moreover, sharks are found to carry high levels of methyl mercury, a substance the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies as highly toxic to people.

Methylmercury, is a lethal toxin that seeps into the oceans. Mercury accumulates in marine animals and it is magnified in concentration as it moves up the food chain. With sharks being the top predators of the ocean, their meat essentially has one of the highest accumulated mercury content.

Dr. Demian Chapman is a research scientist currently based in Peru from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and head of the Institute’s Shark Research Program. He says sharks have evolved in a co-dependent relationship with the ecosystem, shaping different populations for over 400 million years. Sharks keep all those populations in the right balance. Sharks, “are really the lions, tigers and bears of the ocean, they’re the chief predators.”

Michael Skoletsky, Executive Director of Shark Savers agrees with Dr Chapman.

“It’s reasonable to assume that if you take the top predators out, it’s going to destabilize the whole ecosystem.

“We humans need sharks—alive, in the oceans.”