The historical context of shark fin soup is at the heart of the controversy. The soup is deeply rooted in Chinese culture where it is seen as a luxury item: a way of celebrating status and occasion. Typically served at weddings and banquets, the dish was favoured by Chinese Emperors for its rarity and has gone on to become a symbol of a host's good fortune. "It's like champagne," said Alvin Leung, owner of two-Michelin-star Bo Innovation in Wan Chai. "You don't open a bottle of Coke to celebrate. It's a ritual." Via
Poignantly, though shark fin soup has been in decline in Hong Kong in recent years (largely thanks to its controversy) the exploding middle class in Mainland China is showing a phenomenal appetite for the delicacy, more than compensating for the local downturn. The sector is growing at 5% per annum, with 70 million sharks currently killed each year to support the trade. It's a billion dollar industry with fins selling for up to US$500 per pound.
Much of the controversy surrounding shark fin soup stems from the manner in which the fins are obtained, namely finning. The fin is the only really valuable piece of the shark so once a shark is caught the fin is chopped off and the fin-less shark dropped back into the sea. For the fishermen, the rest of the shark simply takes up too much room.
Without their fins, the sharks cannot swim and sink to the bottom of the sea where they're picked at by other fish and die of starvation. Finning lies at the centre of the debate because it ignites the fury of animal rights activists and is seen by observers, quite justifiably, as unwarranted cruelty.
Whilst animal cruelty is an important issue, the most powerful argument against the shark trade is actually ecological. The damage to shark populations caused by over-fishing is extensive. Though the delicacy is mostly eaten in China, sharks are fished all over the globe and 126 of an estimated 460 shark species are now threatened by extinction.
The point, however, is bigger than the shark - it concerns the entire marine eco-system. Because sharks are the top predators in their habitats, the decline in their numbers is having a profound impact across the board. The species they prey on, such as the giant Humboldt squid off the North American West Coast, are proliferating, upsetting the balance of our oceans to a profound degree.
Clearly the reasons for abandoning the shark trade are emotionally charged – but the same can be said for the other side of the debate where it’s regarded as a historic, cultural institution. What’s more, today’s cultural climate is significant. China is going through an extraordinary transition from an agrarian nation into an economic superpower and a host of status symbols are springing up across the Mainland ranging from cars to clothing. Yet because of the relative novelty of these symbols, shark fin soup boasts all the more potency. It draws on a rich heritage these new trends cannot hope to encompass.
The movement to ban it is therefore seen as an attack on Chinese culture itself. For instance, whilst US Senator Leland Yee has acknowledged that shark finning is an issue, he argued that there are ways to handle the practice other than completely banning their consumption, which he has described as “the latest assault on Asian cultural cuisine.”
It stirs up the same culture Vs nature debate seen in the UK when a bill was passed in 2004 to ban fox-hunting, another cultural institution dating back centuries. What's all the more concerning for the Chinese, however, is the pressure to abandon a cornerstone of their culture comes largely from outside their country. They are being told to abandon shark fin soup by people who've never even been to China.
As such, according to many critics of a ban, beneath the chorus of voices against the shark trade lies something altogether more political: anti-Chinese sentiment. Jonathan Wu, a Chinese American chef, summed it up when he said, "It's a tough call, but I support the ban. While we are at it though, I'd also ban Caspian caviar and bluefin tuna (Caspian sturgeon and bluefin tuna are both endangered) until their fisheries recover - no doubt, that would raise an uproar in certain other cultural communities."
The question is: why do western politicians see fit to target this foreign cultural niche instead of other damaging delicacies? The reason is scoring cheap political points, or at least that's how it's perceived. By attacking the shark fin trade, western politicians court the environmental lobby without angering too many folks at home – local Chinese citizens aside. Critics view it as political opportunism cloaked in environmental concern.
There’s no doubt huge swathes of the Chinese population feel shark fin soup has been singled out amongst a multitude of cruel and damaging dining practices, but when the debate truly reaches these shores it will be interesting to see how politicians react.
Fascinatingly, it’s likely to foster a political climate that’s diametrically opposed to what we’re seeing in the west. Instead of landing cheap political points by attacking the east, the reverse will be the case. Local politicians will be supported in huge numbers to stand up to what will be portrayed as Western finger pointing. In many ways the controversy will appear territorial, framed in Chinese political discourse as a Western attempt to infringe on Chinese culture. If we’re not seeing it already, we’re likely to see a binary debate, portrayed as ‘us Vs them’.
What’s also interesting, however, is that when Chinese people read about shark fin soup as opposed to simply eating it, they tend to support a ban. This phenomenon is exemplified by NBA star Yao Ming who swore in a live TV conference in 2006 that he would never eat shark fin soup again.
It's a heated battle, but over time it seems one the environmentalists are likely to win, and one from a neutral standpoint, you hope they do. The ecological damage and cruelty of finning is simply too large a burden to bear for what remains - despite being a cultural institution - a bowl of soup.
Evidence (such as the vote in California) also points to the growing influence and momentum of the pro-ban lobby. For instance, 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.
California's vote only serves to illustrate the breadth of the debate and it’s significant that the legality of shark fin soup (for some) has been dealt with by an elected Western body. It will be some time before such a vote makes its way to this part of the world, and if it does, to begin with, it would probably seek to modify current regulations rather than propose an outright ban – but such a vote seems a matter of when rather than if. Get ready for political fireworks aplenty.