NOTE: The following editorial by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag was originally written for National Geographic’s “Ocean Views” blog. Dr. Hammerschlag is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and recipient of multiple grants from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.
Would you eat a bowl of soup if you knew that is was made with minced endangered species? What about if it was also packed full with neurotoxins that can cause degenerative brain disease? Still hungry?
This is the case when it comes to shark fin soup, primarily a Chinese delicacy. The soup itself has no color, taste, or smell and requires addition of chicken, beef, or pork broth to add flavor. However, the cartilage from the shark fin provides texture to the soup. So, why consume it? Because it is a cultural sign of wealth and traditionally consumed at celebratory events including weddings.
Sadly, the demand for shark fin is driving several shark populations toward extinction. Tens of millions of sharks are killed annually for their fins! However, many shark species are late to mature, have few young and reproduce very infrequently – they are simply being removed faster than they can reproduce. For example, studies suggest that some hammerhead species in the northwest Atlantic have declined over 89% between 1986 and 2000. A new study, which carried out DNA testing on shark fin soup served in 14 U.S. cities, revealed that endangered shark species, including hammerheads, were being served up at local restaurants.
Shark meat is rarely consumed. Their tissues contain high levels of urea (as in the main substance found in urine) that helps them osmoregulate in the oceans (jargon that basically means maintaining water balance so they don’t become too dehydrated). This makes their meat, for the most part, worthless. In contrast, trading in shark fins is extremely lucrative. A single bowl of soup can cost hundreds of dollars. So, when a boat goes out to harvest shark fins, they would prefer not to waste their precious cargo space on massive shark bodies, instead keeping only their fins. So, in most parts of the world, fisherman catch the sharks, hack off their fins, and discard the rest of the shark’s body at sea, leaving them to die on the ocean floor. This act is called “finning.”