Of course we're serving Sharks Fin Soup! cried my indignant Chinese mother. You're being absurd!
That was Mother Dearest's response to my suggestion, some five years ago, that we replace the dish in the menu of our traditional Chinese wedding dinner with one that didn't involve the severing of fins from a living creature, and the tossing of its breathing, writhing, bleeding body back into the ocean.
Mother Dearest was resolute in her position, but it was hard to blame her. She, like many ethnic Chinese around the world, comes from a long tradition of shark fin-slurping that prevailed for centuries, carrying with it the perception of power and prowess. It's a gastronomic tradition passed down to us from the Great Emperors of China, or so I've been told.
It's a tradition that has -- as I later also learned -- withstood the test of time, the test of wars, and yes, the test of the Cultural Revolution, which I think wiped out a lot of stuff I'm supposed to care about.
But I care about the sharks and how our love for their fins is endangering their survival. However, at the time of that wedding in Singapore, my concern was regarded by my relatives and peers as a very foreign concept reserved largely for western environmentalists and their westernized and disrespectful Asian supporters.
Now, all that is changing.
It is estimated that between 1.3 and 2.7 million smooth and scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) are captured for the shark fin trade each year. Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
While it has been reportedly hard to ascertain the extent of shark finning because it operates in a grey area, it has been estimated that 26 to 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, according to Save Our Seas Foundation. Indonesia and India take the lead in shark fishing, with the chunk of the catch going to Hong Kong (58 percent) and China (36 percent).
Governments around the world are making strides in trying to reverse that trend. In the past year alone, the movement to reduce the global shark fin trade has progressed from campaigns targeting consumers to efforts by lawmakers to implement stricter legislation against the sale, possession and distribution of fins.
Much of that progress has been driven by Western cities and states that house sizable Chinese populations.
U.S. States, Canadian Cities Move to Ban Shark Fin Trade
On Oct. 7 this year, California's Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill to ban the possession and sale of shark fins within the state, joining western states Hawaii, Washington and Oregon. The law that takes effect July 1, 2013 would effectively put in place a coastwide ban on the trade.
In Canada, Toronto on Oct. 25 enacted a bylaw banning the sale, possession and consumption of shark fins within the city. Toronto is Canada's largest city with one of the country's largest populations of Chinese-Canadians and stands among its top consumers of shark fins, according to the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, & Education (Coare).
Toronto's action followed a similar one taken by Brantford, Ontario, which in May became the first Canadian city to sign its own citywide ban on the trade.
But growing interest in the plight of the shark has also taken hold across the Atlantic, where Europe is taking its fight against the trade up by another notch.
EU Proposes New Law To Close Loophole
While the West has largely been the biggest and most vocal critics of the shark fin trade, the irony is that western countries have, to a large extent, also helped feed the Asian appetite for the controversial dish. The European Union is reportedly the largest supplier of fins to China, but it plans to put a stop to this.
Exactly a month ago, the European Commission put forward draft legislation forbidding shark finning by all vessels fishing in EU waters, as well as for all EU-registered vessels fishing anywhere else in the world. This means that these vessels would only be allowed to land sharks with their fins still attached.
The proposal aims to close a loophole in current EU law, put in place in 2003, that allows some vessels to remove fins aboard and to land fins and shark carcasses in different ports, which makes it difficult for authorities to enforce the law.
Should the new law pass, it would largely affect vessels from Spain and Portugal, as they give out the most permits for the separating of fins from sharks while onboard, according to the EU.
The Message Hits Home as Asia Catches On
The biggest and perhaps most surprising step, however, has come from the Far East and from among the largest perpetrators of the culinary crime.
There are almost no limits on the number of sharks which can be caught by fishing fleets on the high seas. With an average annual catch of 48,000 tons, Taiwan is responsible for nearly six percent of the reported global catch of sharks both for trade and domestic uses. Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
In a major development, Taiwan announced this October that it would impose a ban in 2012 on shark finning and require that sharks be landed with their fins attached. The act would make Taiwan the first Asian country to introduce such regulation.
Taiwan's decision signals a major step in the fight against the trade. It is listed among the world's top five shark catching nations, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
Even more surprising is the decision by an Asian luxury hotel group to ban the lucrative dish across its establishments.
The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., owner of uber-luxury hotel operator Peninsula Hotels, last week announced it will stop serving shark fins at all its operations beginning Jan. 1, 2012, saying it wants to contribute to preserving the marine ecosystem for the world's future generations and hopes that other hotels will follow its example.
The decision by the group that operates in Asia and the U.S. has been hailed by both the press and environmentalists as a major breakthrough in the fight to save the shark.
The Shark Fin Tradeoff
Despite growing attention, shark fin soup still continues to be popular and prevalent in Asia, taking centerstage in a culture where food symbolizes a great number of things, among them prosperity, virility, health and happiness. It's also a dish I constantly fought to resist when I left New York on my last visit to Asia this past June, even as I protested against its sourcing.
For me, that morsel of fin braised in herb-infused stock is truly a complex and sublime gastronomic experience, even if its merits are lost on much of the western world, including Gordon Ramsay, who was seen poo-pooing the taste of shark fins in his recent -- and very compelling -- documentary about the shark fin trade.
But then, it isn't about how much I like the taste of the dish or how much Ramsay despises it. It's about how many people around the world continue to dine on shark fins, actively and viciously depleting the population of a predator that we've made into prey. It's about the sacrifices we -- the shark fin soup lovers -- need to make to protect the balance of the seas and, in turn, our own survival.
The concept is neither abstract nor exclusively western. It is, in fact, based on a very Chinese tenet that we should sacrifice now in order to enjoy rewards later, and perhaps it should be embraced as such.