September 22, 2011
Former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming(notes), along with billionaire Richard Branson, attended a press conference on Wednesday in Shanghai to raise awareness about a dish you may not have even heard of -- something called "shark fin soup."
Yao is asking his fellow countrymen to stop eating shark fins, and while his words may not make much of a dent in changing a centuries-old Chinese tradition, this is a very good thing. Because the practice of securing shark fins is a terrible, terrible thing.
Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in China, and though the price of a fin can be more than exorbitant, that doesn't stop the massive consumption of the dish. A dish that, frankly, is more show than substance. Shark fin soup is usually culled from a dried fin (dried out gas station beef jerky is closer in tenderness to a rare-cooked cut of filet mignon than it is to the fin) that essentially re-hydrates itself in a broth usually made of chicken stock and fish oil with other spices.
The broth itself, I'm sure, is delicious. It's soup. The shark fin? It's essentially tasteless, a somewhat gelatinous-yet-stringy goo that hardly even resembles shark meat, which can be pretty tasty. Anything could taste good in that broth, and the fin essentially adds nothing to the proceedings. So why do the Chinese keep gobbling it up?
Because it's a status symbol dish that many can afford, or many will save for months to afford. And in a country that has balanced out both empires, Socialism, rampant poverty, affluence, and myriad other economic climates in its time, status and this dish's historical role in that status means a lot. Just calling it "a tradition" is still a little weak.
So why is it wrong for them to consume shark fin?
Because shark fins aren't culled from a whole caught shark, with its various other body parts being sold for food or other uses. The purveyors of this trade catch the shark, age be damned, cut off its fin, and dump it back in the ocean. Without the fin, the shark cannot swim; and it usually slowly bleeds to death as it stinks like a stone in the ocean.
And because of the sheer amount of both regulated and unregulated shark fin fisherman, entire ecosystems are being blown to bits mainly because all manner of food chain-leveling sharks (the fishermen don't discriminate in what type of shark they go after; and the taste apparently doesn't change from shark to shark) are disappearing by the hundred. All for a piece of "meat" that usually rivals the size of a slim cut of flank steak.
The practice is growing. According to Branson, who stood with Yao Wednesday in damning the trade, China's growing affluence is leading to a massive uptick in the consumption of shark fins:
"There's been a massive increase in shark fin soup and the killing of sharks," said Branson, whose Virgin Airlines bans transport of shark fins. "The world is getting wealthier, particularly in China people are getting wealthier, and they can now afford to buy shark fin soup."
"We're trying to get other businesses to ban the transportation of shark fins," he said.
A reported 1.5 million sharks a week are being slaughtered for their fins alone. And the food, the "prize," is tasteless. Do you know what they make mock shark fin soup out of in China? Cellophane noodles. That's your taste approximation -- cellophane noodles.
It's a noble cause, and one you should be aware of. Because the continued practice is going to decimate the ecosystem that feeds so many other billions of people at a reasonable price, with sustainable food. Food with actual nutritional content.
Big move, Yao.