Image: Jeff Rotman with permission from The Washington Post
In a testament to the power of the consumer, the tastes of the growing Chinese middle class could be the single-largest threat to sharks worldwide. In an excerpt in The Washington Post from her upcoming book, Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, Juliet Eilperin, explains that even amongst reports that shark fin soup is losing favour in some places, there is still enough of a growing demand for the soup in mainland China that 73 million sharks are killed annually to fill the consumer demand. Eilperin writes about the current and future state of the shark fin market.
But while shark's fin soup consumption is waning in Hong Kong, the restaurateur Norman Ho says, this decline is more than outpaced by the surging demand in mainland China.
"China is at the beginning of the cycle," he says. "In China, the market for shark fin is growing as they are getting more and more rich."
The saddest part of this story is that the use of shark fins in soup is purely a status symbol.
Coral Seafood Restaurant owner Norman Ho's problem with shark's fin soup is not that he's worried about sharks. It's that making a flavorful soup out of the tasteless fins is an elaborate, costly process.
The fins have to be soaked in cold water for half a day and then boiled with ginger and spring onions. Then soaked in tap water for four hours. And finally boiled for six to eight hours with chicken stock and Chinese ham to add flavor because there's no taste otherwise.
"All the taste comes from the soup. You have to put the shark fin and the soup together," he said. "To serve the shark's fin soup is more or less status."
At least with other seemingly cruel ways we manipulate animals for food - foie gras, veal - there can be a taste argument. With shark fin soup it's simply an arbitrary status accessory.
The power of shark's fin soup to convey status is enormous, and it pervades Chinese society. Serving shark's fin soup at auspicious events has been a tradition for centuries among elites, but the Chinese bridal and restaurant industries have turned it into an essential element of any middle-class wedding or important business meal. As China's economy expands, more people are putting the soup on the menu.
Shark finning is as catastrophic to the shark population as ending up as by-catch in the tuna and swordfish fisheries. Eilperin lays out a united front of organizations around the world - from China to Chile to the Bahamas to the USA and back to Hong Kong - against the practice.
Read the entire excerpt from Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks in the Washington Post.