A sea of red decorations can be seen from afar, as lanterns and couplets cover streets, buildings, and homes wherever the Chinese New Year is celebrated. Along with decorating in red, which is meant to symbolize hope and good fortune to come, the Chinese New Year calls for a time to celebrate and be with family. Traditionally, families will take part in a New Year’s Eve dinner called ‘reunion dinner,’ which is believed to be the most important meal of the year. But unfortunately, this symbolic and well-intended tradition has historically been associated with a practice that represents the opposite of everything the Chinese New Year embodies.
According to the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, on Chinese New Year many family dinners include shark fin. Last year, they found that over 80% of 291 Chinese New Year menus in Hong Kong included shark fin dishes. Shark fin soup has been considered a status symbol in China for quite some time, dating back to ancient Chinese dynasties from the 1600s. This cuisine is most often associated with wedding banquets and special occasions, served as a sign of hospitality and also showing guests that the host is financially successful. Although overall consumption of shark fin in Hong Kong has gone down from 70% to less than 45%, a traditional concept that especially older generations are still clinging on to is, “No fin, no feast.”
What exactly is shark finning? The practice of shark finning involves slicing off the fins of the shark at sea, usually while the shark is still alive, and then discarding the carcass, often by tossing it back into the ocean alive. This barbaric practice results in the shark being unable to move meaning it cannot feed or defend itself. These sharks are left to lie at the bottom of the sea to starve. And for some sharks that require continual movement in the water to properly breath, death from suffocation occurs.
Recent reports have stated that 60% of the world’s shark species are threatened. Certain species like hammerheads and oceanic whitetips have declined by more than 90% due to overfishing, which can largely be contributed to the shark fin soup trade. This trade is said by many experts in the field to be the most significant cause of the shark population decline. Furthermore, newer DNA studies are revealing that one-third of the shark species found in the Hong Kong retail market, the historic center for the global trade in shark fins, may be threatened with extinction. Andy Cornish, the leader of WWF’s Global Shark and Ray Initiative, stated that 100% of shark fins sold in Hong Kong are from unsustainable and or untraceable sources.
Despite these troubling statistics, shark finning is not illegal everywhere. There are international laws on shark finning, which include bans and a variety of policies. Some countries, such as Canada, South Africa, Panama, Argentina, and India, have full or partial bans on shark finning. Many of the countries with full or partial bans on finning that still allow shark fishing of certain species, require all sharks to be landed with fins naturally attached to their bodies. Despite laws being in place, illegal finning continues to occur. In 2018 alone, six smuggling cases of endangered species of shark fins resulted in the seizure of 520 pounds of dried shark fins in Hong Kong.
Currently, in US waters, the practice of shark finning is illegal. However, it is still legal for fins to be traded, imported, and exported throughout the United States. A bill banning the buying and selling of shark fins in the US has been reintroduced in the US House of Representatives. Passing this bill would help prevent the US from contributing to the 73 million sharks that end up in the market every year.
Passing a new bill in the United States would be a giant step forward in the worldwide fight against shark finning, but what is being done where the trade is most prevalent? Bowie Wu Fung, an 86-year-old Hong Kong actor, now speaks for WildAid against shark fin consumption and even appears on billboards in Hong Kong. Having someone famous and from an older generation speak out against the trade could make a significant impact on the people of Hong Kong, especially since the shark fin tradition is far more rooted with elders. Even more, having these kinds of advertisements posted in Hong Kong is crucial as it was recently named the world’s biggest shark trading hub by a study published in Marine Policy.
Another method being used locally to deter people from buying shark fin products is education about the toxins that can be found in sharks making them harmful to consume. The ocean’s top predators accumulate toxins as they age with mercury, lead, and arsenic being some of the main substances people are concerned with when it comes to eating sharks. Methylmercury is of particular interest to watch out for since it is the most toxic form of mercury and affects the nervous system, specifically the developing brain. Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety has provided warnings on the consumption of predatory fish, noting that in 2017 eight times the permissible limit of mercury was found in a sample from a local supermarket. WildAid also tested samples of raw shark fin from dried seafood markets in Hong Kong and found that all contained above the permissible amounts of arsenic.
Potential toxic harms aside, Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak of the Four Seasons in Hong Kong spoke out about shark fin cuisine stating that shark fin soup doesn’t even have a desirable taste on its own. He explained, “The flavor comes from the soup: a superior stock that is boiled for eight hours with Yunnan ham, chicken, and pork ribs.” The Four Seasons in Hong Kong stopped serving shark fin soup back in 2011. WildAid and WWF-Hong Kong have estimated that more than 18,000 hotels, 44 international airlines, and 17 of the 19 largest container shipping lines have stopped serving shark fin as well as banned it from cargo.
“As more hotels and restaurants join together in this pledge, we send a strong signal to our community and can together help to reshape dining concepts around sustainability,” said Chef Tak. A promising statistic has shown that the acceptability of excluding shark fin soup from weddings, which is what shark fin dining is most culturally known for, has gone up from 78% to 92% according to the Bloom Association of Hong Kong. Although the fight against shark finning is far from over, these cumulative efforts are helping shift a culture away from cruel practices while also enlightening people on the importance of having sharks present in the world’s oceans.