Shark Fins: A Cruel Delicacy


Ziming (Sarah) Wang, Staff Writer

Believe it or not, shark meat, especially the fins, was actually a famous delicacy until only eight years ago, when they were banned—first by the U.S., then nationally for environmental reasons. So, what exactly makes it cruelty, and what caused the unusual trend of shark-eating in the first place?

The consumption of shark fins dates as far back as a thousand years ago, first originating in China during the Song Dynasty from 960-1279. They were made into a soup and served to the emperor as a means of celebration, and defined one’s royal status. The people believed that sharks serve as a symbol of power and tenacity, making it appropriate to be consumed only by figures of importance. The dish was also thought of as having restorative abilities, preventing aging and diseases, although current studies prove that the amount of carbs and fats in the dish outweighs the amount of protein, and contains almost no vitamins of benefit.

The soup’s recipe involved shredding dried shark fins and adding them to chicken broth, which is then thickened with cornstarch. The shark fins are dried on racks placed on the balcony, and rows of fins can be seen hanging over people’s heads in the alleyways. The drying process can intensify the flavor of the meat, and give the fin a rice noodle-like appearance and texture when rehydrated. 

As time passed, shark fin soup slowly became more available to the masses, causing it to increase in popularity, which led to the major controversy of this dish: overfishing. The beginning of the shark fin trade made sharks extremely valuable to catch, increasing the rate of shark fishing to about 100 million per year. Adding on to the shark’s slow reproduction rate, the species became much more prone to extinction. Because of excessive finning, the shark population decreased by 60-70% before action was taken. 

Although shark farming is suggested by some as a more environmentally-friendly method of producing shark fin soup, the shark’s long lifespan of 20 years makes it impossible to achieve. Since it takes almost a decade for sharks to mature, the production rate of fins will be impossible to keep up with consumer needs. 

Another factor of concern for shark finning is the morality surrounding the way the fins are extracted. Since only the fins are valuable out of the entire carcass, they are hacked off the shark’s body—the shark being conscious through the whole process. The fish is then tossed back into the ocean immobilized, which typically results in death. This inhumane practice and waste of shark meat play a great part in its future banning. 

Congress passed the Shark Finning Prohibition in 2000 and the Shark Conservation Act in 2010, both revolving around banning shark fin trades in the U.S. and prohibiting ships, including official U.S. vessels, from having shark fin ownership. Although finning was subsequently suppressed in many countries, illegal trades of this delicacy still exist today, present in Asian cities such as Taipei and Hong Kong, or generally the regions between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Shark fin soup has been a major part of Chinese culture and symbolism, and it is a great shame for many consumers that such a historical dish must be discontinued. When asked about an alternative way of keeping this tradition alive, sophomore Charlotte Li suggested using a vegan alternative.

“I know that sharks can’t be kept in farms or closed habitats,” said Li. “So substituting shark fins with something environmentally friendly and keeping the dish’s original flavor I think can really change the shark fin soup for the better.”

Despite the cruelty involved, shark fins were a significant delicacy enjoyed by many Chinese adults, even including my parents, who stated that they have tasted the soups many times back in Beijing and liked its flavor and texture. With the development of more ethical and effective methods for shark farming, or through the discovery of more identical substitutes, this dish can continue to be a representation of Chinese history for generations to come.


Photo courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS