BY SATYA TWINE
Shark fin soup is fairly simple to prepare. Mix together some chicken broth, mushrooms, a dash of ginger, spices, and one shark fin. Boil. The dish isn’t especially appetizing; many who have had it describe it as underwhelming, bland, or tasteless. Yet demand for this Chinese soup, sold for as much as $100 per bowl, is the driving force behind the slaughter and trade of over 70 million sharks each year.
Despite the soup’s dull flavor and watery consistency, it is a Chinese delicacy, made popular over 1,000 years ago by emperors who flaunted its rarity. Today, the dish persists as an archaic status symbol. More recently, rapid economic growth and prosperity in East Asia have increased demand for the soup significantly as greater numbers of citizens can afford to splurge. Served at banquets, weddings, and ritzy corporate events, the soup and its antiquated associations are often the pricey centerpiece of traditional Chinese feasts. And with each slurp, connoisseurs sustain a market for poachers around the world.
Although shark fin consumption is concentrated in Asia, the finning industry poses a global ecological threat. Costa Rica is the center of such operations. Taiwanese fleets shark fishing in the Pacific land the majority of their catch at central Costa Rican docks before exporting it to Hong Kong. Shark fishing is legal in most countries, though ships frequently violate fin weight limits designed to prevent overfishing. Shark meat has little value, but the fins, which make up only four percent of a shark’s body weight, earn traders $300 per pound. After fishermen cut off the fins, they throw the dismembered bodies back to sea. Still alive, the mangled creatures bleed to death or are slowly eaten as they sink by fish, eels, or even other sharks.
Out of about 450 identified shark species, 143 are now under threat—a significant increase from only 15 species in 1996. The Director of Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign, Jill Hepp, warns, “Sharks aren’t like other fish. They reproduce slowly and have very few pups when they do… It would be a travesty if some of these species disappeared before we even had a chance to learn about them.” This population decline has recently incited global criticism for shark fishing.
Randall Arauz, founder of Pretoma, a nonprofit marine conservation organization, was among the first to expose the Costa Rican shark trade in 1997. While gathering field data on sea turtles, Arauz, by luck, caught alarming video footage of a foreign fleet finning sharks. In 2001, he brought his findings to the media. Scrambling over rooftops in Puntarenas with a handheld camera, Arauz and his partners revealed the extent of the secretive industry. Over time, they filmed five boats covertly landing fins in the middle of the night; in one case, three trucks, each carrying 10 tons, were loaded and driven away. Costa Rica customs law says that the nation’s imports must occur through public facilities, Arauz explained. But because they were using their own private docks, every single one of their landings was illegal. Surrounded by walls and barbed wire, the poachers were safe from inspections.
After the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute ruled in 2003 that ships must land sharks with fins attached, poachers continuously exploited gaping loopholes in poorly worded laws. In the past, the legislation allowed shark fins to be landed at ports partially attached, which drove fisherman to create innovative ways of violating this regulation, sticking fins on with tape or even stapling them to the shark’s back, explained Jacklyn Wong of the Costa Rican Vice Ministry of Water and Oceans. Clever fleets even landed fins attached only to spines to save space.
Such ambiguous policies have left species in coastal regions vulnerable. In 2011, 400,000 sharks were killed in Costa Rican waters alone. For years, armed only with legislation that outlawed finning itself, the Coast Guard was unable to punish fishermen carrying fins onboard unless they were caught in the act. Although Costa Rica has been widely recognized as a leader in environmental conservation, it failed to address the issue with necessary force until recently, when both large-scale and grassroots activism finally spurred legal action.
In October 2012, pressure on the government to address its ineffective policies resulted in an offcial decree, signed by President Laura Chinchilla, to close loopholes in legislation. The decree will act as a blanket ban on the illegal market, particularly regarding previously unregulated aspects of importation and trade. In addition, the government announced a $15 million investment in new radars to monitor marine territory more closely.
Of the legislation, Wong says, “This decree is not a new initiative. It’s a proposal rooted in the people and organizations that have fought for it.” President Chinchilla insists that the country is taking a zero tolerance stance against illegal finning and trade, but many environmentalists have doubts. Pretoma in particular worries about illegal fins being imported by land through Nicaragua. “There’s no doubt the shark fin industry has its claws deeply rooted in the political system. They have a lot of friends,” Arauz acknowledges. “I would be naïve… to think tomorrow or the next day shark finning will be over. That doesn’t happen anywhere in the world.”
As of now, countries like Palau, the Bahamas, and Honduras have established 926,645 square miles of ocean as sanctuaries, off limits to all shark fishing. Hepp notes, “In the Bahamas, their diving industry is worth millions of dollars a year, specifically around sharks. For them it was an investment in an existing enterprise to make sure those sharks were there— protected.”
China announced in June that shark fin soup will be prohibited at official state banquets. Although the ban could take up to three years to be put into effect, the initiative may foreshadow the retirement of the delicacy in younger, more environmentally conscious generations. With Chinese celebrities like Yao Ming speaking out against fin consumption and upscale hotel chains banning it in their restaurants, it’s clear that a shift away from tradition has begun. A number of high profile Chinese chefs have even taken it upon themselves to cook sustainable versions of the dish with gelatin imitation fin, while others have stopped serving the soup entirely. Soon, the predators previously killed for soup may be more valuable alive than slaughtered and left at the bottom of the sea.
Satya Twine ’15 is in Trumbull College. Contact her at email@example.com.