Shark-Fin Soup and the Conservation Challenge

Shark-fin soup is eaten at weddings and other celebrations across Asia. But this gesture of largesse comes with a big environmental price tag

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PAUL HILTON / EPA / Corbis

Shark-fin soup

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Despite this carnage, only three shark species are banned from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES): the great white, the whale shark and the basking shark. In March, eight more endangered shark species were put before the body to be considered for protection; none were accepted. "Countries around the world have not done enough," says Rand. "It's the Wild West out in the open ocean."

When top predators like sharks disappear from their environments, ecosystems fall out of whack. Sharks help maintain the genetic health of the fish populations they feed on by eating the weak, sick and injured. They also keep their prey populations in balance. Off the North American West Coast, for example, as shark numbers have declined, the giant Humboldt squid has proliferated, moving from its traditional territory on the southern coast of the Americas as far north as Alaska. The squid, which can grow up to 6 ft. (1.8 m) long, have attacked divers in southern California, and commercial fishermen in Washington have reported them stealing salmon off their hooks. On the East Coast of the U.S., where large predatory sharks have also been overfished, cownose ray populations have exploded, taking a bite — literally — out of the bay scallop fishery.

Conservationists argue that given the global decline of shark species, preserving shark populations is becoming more valuable than fishing them. Pew has worked with the governments of Palau and the Maldives to help establish the world's only shark sanctuaries in their waters. Both places are big dive destinations, and local governments know the price vacationers are willing to pay to see sharks in their natural habitats. In the Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia, shark populations are healthier than those in the Great Barrier Reef because, while the sharks are still unprotected, the area is less frequented and has not been fished as heavily. Fitzpatrick, who has been lobbying to establish a mixed-use marine park in the region, says bringing divers to these remote waters would generate more income than using them as fishing grounds. "Each shark is worth $60,000 a year in potential tourist dollars, and they are going to live for 30 years," he says. "A live shark is way more valuable than a dead shark."

The shark's plight is starting to be weighed against the delicacy's cultural value. In July, Hawaii became the first state in the U.S. to ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. In 2006, at a WildAid press conference in China, NBA star Yao Ming swore he would never eat shark-fin soup again. In Hong Kong, a Chinese-language Facebook campaign against shark fin has become unexpectedly popular in recent months. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has persuaded several companies, including HSBC and Swire, to go shark-free and not serve shark fin at their events in Hong Kong. The conservation group has also lobbied local restaurants that offer the classic nine-course banquet served at Cantonese weddings, of which shark fin is traditionally a part, to offer a no-shark menu as a choice to couples. "People are realizing that there will not be shark fin to consume if we continue as we are," says Andy Cornish, the director of conservation for WWF in Hong Kong. Leung, the chef at Bo Innovation, serves only imitation shark fin, made from mung bean, at his establishment. "There are some cultures that are worth keeping and certain things that are not," Leung says. "I believe it's a waste of money."

After my first, less-than-memorable encounter with shark-fin soup, I decided that, like my colleagues, I would probably skip it next time. Unfortunately, that next time came at an intimate dinner in a small, private dining room, where I was both a guest and a stranger. When the soup — the centerpiece of the meal — was set down before me, I ate it. Apparently, I'm not the only one to cave. "You go to a wedding, and you don't eat and walk out on them because you're insulted — I'm not that extreme," Leung, the chef, says. "If other people believe that it brings luck or brings face, I'd be a spoilsport." To make a dent in the slaughter of the sharks, however, there are going to have to be a lot of people willing to spoil this particular sport.

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