The thick and fin of shark fin soup

When I walk around Singapore and admire the beautifully decorated, well-preserved former Chinese shops and merchant houses, I am regularly amused and interested by the names displayed on the fronts of many of the buildings. Names such as the Rope, Hardware and Paint Merchants Association or the Rubber Trade Association of Singapore and the numerous country and Chinese trading associations demonstrate the importance of trade for the city state and the variety of products traded.

One particular commodity I was surprised to see so prevalently advertised is represented by companies such as Yashing (Frozen Sharkfin) PTE LTD or Chin Guan Hong (Sharkfin) PTE LTD. I have now found out that I shouldn’t be surprised to see this, as Singapore is the second largest shark fin trading nation, (Hong Kong is first), and a quick look in the Yellow Pages reveals hundreds and hundreds of shark fin trading companies.

Shark fin is a highly prized food stuff, used mostly in shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy, where it is boiled in a chicken stock. The fin itself is apparently almost tasteless but adds a crunchy and chewy texture. Shark fin soup has long been regarded as a “treasured food from the sea”, considered an important and decadent gourmet treat. Given its rarity, it held, and often still holds, both culinary and symbolic significance.

Today a bowl of the soup costs around £50 (almost $80 USD) and is usually associated with weddings, banquets, and important business deals, where it is thought to indicate wealth, power, prestige as well as honour, respect, and appreciation to ones guests. It is also thought to have health giving properties, but these are largely unsupported.

Today the issue is massive. No longer a rare and hard to obtain dish from the sea, sharks are hunted mercilessly, and an estimated 70-75 million sharks are killed each year, with the majority having their fins removed and their dismembered bodies thrown back in the sea. The conservation impact of this is huge, as one would imagine. Less than two decades ago 15 shark species were listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List. Today that has risen to over 180 species that are considered threatened or listed on the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

There are no recorded sustainable fisheries for sharks. They are slow-growing, taking many years to mature and breed, with relatively low productivity, so are vulnerable to over-exploitation.

The pressure now being put upon sharks around the world cannot be ignored and many organisations are now campaigning to stop shark fin trade, to try and impose some form of regulation and to raise awareness of the issues and the threats faced by sharks. Beyond the obligations of CITES, many countries around the world are now imposing strict controls on the fishing and importation of shark fins. Many states in the US, Canada and Australia now ban shark fin and the European Union also has laws in place.

Although seen by many as an anti-Chinese western-based campaign, I hope addressing issues surrounding the over exploitation of a group of species and combating animal cruelty remain the central focus.

Many Asian countries, or at least key players within them, are now taking action to reduce the demand and perceived prestige of shark fin soup. Across the region hotel and restaurant chains are removing the soup from their menus, governments are banning it at official functions and local celebrities are speaking up against the practise of shark finning (the killing for and use solely of the fins).

In Singapore, all the leading supermarkets have banned shark fin products and a number of restaurant chains are now doing the same. However, much still needs to be done to remove the association between prestige and importance and what is effectively a tasteless product that results in the death of up to 75 million sharks per year.

To help achieve this, the “No Shark Fins Singapore” campaign has been launched, which aims to make Singapore shark fin free by 2013. The campaign, organised by Ocean Geographic Magazine, was officially launched last week and is supported by a number of NGOs including Fauna & Flora International – Singapore.

The aim is that this will be a Singaporean campaign for Singaporeans, based on raising the awareness of the issues, so soon it will be considered more prestigious and compassionate not to have shark fin soup, and more respectful to your guests to serve them a sustainable, ecologically-friendly and surely more tasty alternative!