Secret ingredients and unexpected meals by Andrew Schneider

Shark fin soup – a cultural war, environmental nightmare and multi-million dollar business

by AndrewSchneider on June 13, 2011

in Traditional and native food

When environmental concern for the survival of a species butts heads with food traditions centuries old, there can be no doubt the battle will be contentious.  When it comes to shark fins and the celebratory soup made from them that is exactly the case.

The multi-faceted debate, argued in statehouses and on the high seas, in restaurants and in family kitchens, touches on issues of animal cruelty, vanishing species, threats to human health and the rights of people to maintain their heritage.

U.S. fisheries agent sort through a captured load of shark fins - NOAA photo

The Food Watchdog interviewed cooks, conservationists, shark hunters, law enforcement agents and politicians from Vancouver, B.C., to California, from Texas to Washington, D.C. Almost every one of them has a dog in this fight, but they all seem to be barking about different things.

The Food and Drug Administration, for example, is worried that imported fins and powdered shark cartilage are contaminated with insect, rodent and other animal filth and sometimes arrive “filthy, putrid or decomposed.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service is concerned that finning  -  a bloody and rapidly spreading trade – often violates U.S. and international fish protection laws and illegal trafficking law both on and off U.S. shores.

The agency is involved in the seizures of all sizes.The NMFS intercepted three small bags of fins express mailed from Canada to Seattle as “Christmas ornaments.” But, working with the Coast Guard, they also intercepted a ship hauling millions of dollars worth of rotting fins bound for processing in South America.
And some Chinese-American politicians, while sympathetic to the plight of the shark, say they are even more concerned about the threat to their culture and way of life.

The cultural implications are particularly delicate, often pitting one generation against another. Recent conversations with two young women who work as concierges in a chichi resort in the heavily Asian Vancouver suburb of Richmond illustrated the differences.

When asked last month for directions to a local fishmonger who might be selling freshly caught shark fin, one woman helpfully volunteered: “Not any more.”

She said shark fin “is very hard to find now. We all understand that it’s not right to eat shark fin in our soup now because many, many sharks are being killed.  It’s really no problem to not eat the soup.”

The next morning, another woman at the same hotel information desk began giving the same politically correct answer. But she paused, looked around and then said: “The young understand why it shouldn’t be eaten, but not the old. My grandfather is very emotional, very angry and says it’s wrong to ignore traditions that have been followed forever.

“When I told him that I would not serve shark fin soup when I marry, he didn’t talk to me for days.”

Traditions are centuries old

So why is this dish so important? Why all the angst?

Culinary historians report that shark fin soup has been a Chinese delicacy since it first appeared on the Emperor’s table around the year 1400, during the Ming Dynasty.

Shark fin has long been regarded in China and some other Asia countries as a cure-all tonic, an aphrodisiac and a weapon in the battle against aging.  Once it was available to only to the wealthy.  But now that China has developed a more affluent middle class, the popularity of shark fin soup is spreading to the masses. The demand for shark fin has also increased in many countries where Chinese have migrated.

Jars of dried shark fins from a store in Vancouver's Chinatown. © photo by The Food Watchdog

The increased demand has marine biologists warning that one-third of the 360 different species of shark – mostly the 40 most abundant types — are heading towards extinction. This is why finning has the attention of the 163 special agents and officers of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and their foreign counterparts.

There are other reasons for the overfishing of shark.

Its cartilage, when powdered, is claimed to combat or prevent a variety of illnesses, most notably and most fraudulently, curing cancer. Sales for this purpose have been banned by the FDA and Federal Trade Commission.

Nevertheless, many people still buy and use large amounts of the shark powder for treating osteoarthritis, other painful joint problems and other medical problems. Natural health stores sell many brands of shark powders as does Amazon, which offers at in least eight different labels.

The butchery of any animal is unpleasant to watch but the finning of the estimated 73 million sharks that are caught every year is merciless.

Videos of the slaughter have gone viral, allowing millions to watch sharks being are hauled onto the ship’s deck where large machete-style knives are used to hack off the shark’s two dorsal fins and as many as three others on its bottom, back and tail in just seconds. The bleeding but still living shark is shoved overboard where, unable to move, it will die a slow death, drowning because without fins it cannot swim and force water through its gills for oxygen.

The campaign against shark finning is increasing and spreading rapidly and many prominent Chinese and Chinese Americans are getting involved in ending the hunt.

Chinese basketball star Yao Ming has done at least three public service announcements against finning. His videos and billboards have drawn much attention to the movement with the message:  “Join me, say no to shark fin soup.”

There are laws

President Bill Clinton signed the original Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000 and this January, President Barack Obama signed the stronger and more protective Shark Conservation Act. The law, irreverently called the “Save Jaws Act,” bans U.S. fishing vessels anywhere and foreign boats in U.S. waters from possessing fins unless the rest of a shark’s carcass is also on board.

On May 12, in Washington state, the governor signed a law that prohibits the sale, trade or distribution of shark fins or derivative products in the state, effectively banning fins imported from other countries. Guam had already passed a similar ban, as did Hawaii, which will dole out fines of $5,000 to $15,000 to restaurants serving the soup and to fishers supplying them.

In Oregon last month, the House unanimously approved a ban on the selling, trading, and possessing of shark. The state senate is holding final hearings next week.
Also last month, the California Assembly overwhelmingly approved a ban on the sale and distribution of shark fins in California.  Now it’s up to the California Senate.

Opposition to the ban is strong and varied in California communities whose demand for shark fin is only second to China itself.

Two Californian lawmakers, both Chinese Americans, have come down firmly on different sides of the proposed ban.

Assemblymen Paul Fong led the effort to introduce the legislation on the House side and the legislative office produced this video.

“Shark finning is unhealthy in all regards,” Fong said. “It’s unhealthy to fin the sharks because it’s decimating their populations and it’s unhealthy to eat shark fins because of the high mercury content.”

He disputed the cultural argument by adding, “Just like it was unhealthy to bind women’s feet, this practice needs to end also.”

Also opposing the ban is State Sen. Leland Yee. He wants to stop the illegal finning but he opposes the legislation, and in explaining his position earlier this year, he reportedly served the shark fin soup to reporters covering the event.

“The proposed law ban all shark fins from consumption, regardless of species or how they were fished or harvested,” Yee said.  “It is the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine and the latest in a series of culturally insensitive actions.”

He said he has fought proposed bans on frog and turtle consumption, efforts to end live food markets, roasted duck, and several other cultural staples and passed legislation to thwart food safety concerns over the traditional cooking of Asian rice noodles and Korean rice cakes.

“Rather than launch just another attack on Asian-American culture, the proponents of the ban on shark fin soup should work with us to strengthen conservation efforts,” Yee said.

The 40 to 60 commercial shark fishermen in California look at the dispute from the business side. “They’re opposed to the wasteful international practice of catching sharks solely for their fins, but they disagree with the proposed law,” said Jonathan Hardy, their lobbyist.

Big Business, enormous profits

So where the shark are fins coming from?

The Food Watchdog couldn’t find any at the seafood sections of two of Richmond’s huge Chinese groceries. A fishmonger at one stood amid dozens of huge tanks of bubbling salt water tending enormous live lobsters, eight type of live fish, trays of scallops in their shells and costly, live geoducks.

“Shark fins are much more expensive, much more,” he said pointing to the world’s largest clam.

Who sells them, I asked, explaining that I had questioned two large seafood stores nearby and another in Vancouver.

Almost all the dried seafood and herbal medicine stores in Main Street in Vancouver's Chinatown have shelves or counters like this that display a costly selection of shark fins. © photo by The Food Watchdog

“You’re not Chinese and you don’t own a restaurant.  The fins can be easily purchased,” he explained and added that the dried fins come mostly from Japan and China. Fresh or frozen fins come through Texas or Mexico, frozen on dry ice packs or chilled in 40-pound cooler chests and driven north to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and British Columbia.

Environmentalists have released videos showing thousands of sharks, laid out row after row, waiting to be finned at Japanese port-side factories.

In this hemisphere, finning is rampant off Central and South America. Coast Guard and fishery service agents and marine scientists from Texas A&M marine laboratories estimate that more than 60,000 sharks a year are hauled from the Gulf of Mexico, where, they say, illicit sharkers often fish on the more shark-populated U.S. side of the invisible border.

Big money can be made by shark finning. Look at one seizure made of a ship chartered out of Honolulu by a Chinese company. It was the King Diamond II, which was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard 250 miles off the coast of Guatemala. The ship had no shark carcasses aboard but 64,695 pounds of fins it had collected from more than a dozen other fishing vessels.  The load of shark fins would bring at least $2.6 million at dockside and more than $20 million on the retail market.

Criminal activity doesn’t stop at the U.S. border. Agents of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, busted Mark Harrison for violating the Lacey Act, a federal fish and wildlife trafficking law, for buying and selling fins of sharks caught in Florida waters. 

When Harrison pleaded guilty on August 19, 2009, he boasted that he was the “nation’s largest shark fin buyer” and had purchased “millions” of fins through his mom-and-pop operation in the Florida panhandle.

For a peek at the retail end of the business check out the dried seafood emporiums on Main Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown. There is no shortage of shark fin. In one store it’s in large candy jar-sized containers, row-after-row, on the wall, separated by size and texture and tagged with prices from $180 to $550 a pound. The neighboring store had the valuable fins in plastic bags in the glass display counter, labeled the same way with prices reaching $800 a pound.

It taste like what?

The Food Watchdog first tasted shark fin soup decades ago after a funeral in Hong Kong and at the wedding of a Chinese-American journalist in Saigon. Over the years it was placed in front of him again at banquets and celebratory gatherings in Chinatown in New York City and San Francisco, a restaurant in a Pittsburgh strip mall and an Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I’d like to say that I stopped eating it years ago because of my environmental awareness and concern for the shark. The truth is that I stopped after a chef in Montreal let me watch him make it and taste it at each step.

Shark fin doesn’t seem to fit in with Chinese cuisine which values color, aroma and flavor.
The fin is almost all cartilage; the tough but pliable tissue supports the shark’s distinctive triangle-shaped dorsal fin and allows the ocean’s most over-hyped killer to make its notorious tight turns and swift maneuvers.

But cartilage is tasteless and, unless it’s spoiled, it has no discernible fragrance. Depending on its size and whether it’s purchased fresh, frozen or dried, shark fin has to be cooked eight or 10 hours.

Some cooks separate well-boiled cartilage into needle-like strands which look like clear noodles. A chef demonstrating Chinese cooking at an International Association of Culinary Professionals conference a few years ago, explained that the fact that shark fin is without taste didn’t matter because its texture had outstanding “mouth feel.”

The flavor in the soup that’s finally served comes from ginger, garlic, spring or green onions, soy sauce, dried shiitake, shrimp, lobster, crab and or chicken all simmered with the softened fin in a rich chicken or vegetable stock.

The fin acts as a thickening agent and the soup is gelatinous, as viscous as gelatin or clear Jell-O. I’ve seen it so congealed that it wouldn’t fall out of the bowl.

Some high-end Chinese restaurants sell shark fin’s soup for as much as $500 for a large tureen, which could serve eight to ten. Sun Ya Seafood in Seattle’s International District has shark fin soup on it’s menu for $9.95 a bowl. Fifteen miles north at the T & T Seafood restaurant, a bowl goes for $36.80.

It’s not just coastal venues that offer the legendary soup.

Theresa Karasek, with the environmental group “Shark Free Saint Louis,” says at least three St. Louis eateries are selling shark fin soup at $11 a bowl.

Karasek is worried that diners in her town “are eating shark without having any idea if the species they are eating is endangered…”

Other reasons not to eat shark fin

What’s floating in that expensive bowl of soup may not be shark at all.

Scientists from the FDA’s Microanalytical Branch and the regional district laboratory in San Francisco says there are “economic incentives to counterfeit real shark fin” and they are working on a way to authenticate real from fake shark fin.

The pair determined that fake shark fin dissolves in a solution of sodium citrate and Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, while real shark fin will not.

Some companies openly admit that they’re selling faux fin because the real stuff is too expensive. A Japanese food-processing company openly advertises its artificial shark fins made out of pork gelatin.

Other companies are selling bogus fins labeled as pure shark.

The China Daily in Beijing and the Japanese language Hong Kong Post both have reported on phony fins being sold through Asia and North America. The stories says the bogus fins are made from mung starch and gelatin concocted from bones, skins, cartilage and tendons boiled into a glutinous glob that is bleached white with highly corrosive chemicals.

Another reason not to eat shark fin may be the concern about the high level of mercury sometime found in shark because the chemical damages the human central nervous system and causes birth defects in infants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency caution consumers that sharks – with their 50-plus-year life spans – absorb and store significant amounts of mercury and this passed on to the fins, often at high levels.

Meanwhile, the battle continues to prevent or preserve shark from ending up in a soup bowl.

Sue Chen, the director of the environmental group Shark Savers, says she resents politicians and others who say passing bans on the catching, selling and cooking of shark fins is an affront to Chinese culture.

“Certainly, this is a delicacy consumed by Asian, however, this is not an Asian issue, but rather a human issue,” Chen told The Food Watchdog last week.

 

Note: This story was also posted on Food Safety News

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Elana Winsberg June 19, 2011 at 23:42

I remember eating shark steak at a restaurant in California when I was a kid, but did not and now never will eat shark fin soup. This is a fascinating story, with shock value.

Bob Anderson June 20, 2011 at 08:13

Great job. And I really DID read it online.

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