The freedom to eat shark fin soup. The responsibility not to.

Posted on August 11, 2010
Written by: Jonn Lu - Shark Savers, Hong Kong

We recently received this comment on our website:

"We like Shark fin so much ... I will eat as long as available in the market ... why push people not to eat ???? this is a freedom society ... we can do and eat anything we like .... stop this !!!"

Not knowing the author of the note, we decided to take it seriously (we do get prank or provocative comments, sometimes). The question is a perfectly reasonable one and we all value our liberties. As humans, we also have responsibilities which often restrain some of our freedoms. Jonn Lu, our volunteer team leader in Hong Kong, asked to respond. Here is Jonn's thoughtful reply.

Dear Kelly,

Thank you for your e-mail and the opportunity to present our point of view.

To help our discussion, allow me to create a hypothetical scenario. Let us imagine meeting Ms. Chan at a wedding banquet who tells us this ...

"I love panda meat. I love the taste of it. I also love the panda's hide and fur, they make a beautiful winter coat. As long as someone is able to provide it in the market, I will buy the fur and I will pay to eat the meat. I don't understand why people are pushing and asking me not to support the panda industry. This is my freedom and my choice. I can do and eat anything I want ... no one has a right to stop or control me. If I had my way, I will offer not only shark-fin soup at my wedding banquet, but also panda meat".

There are less than 1,000 pandas left in the world now. What would happen if we allowed Ms. Chan to exercise her right and freedom to kill pandas for fur and meat to feed her banquet guests? Should we respect her rights and freedoms, and allow pandas to be hunted and killed until there are none left in the world? Or should we try to persuade her otherwise? Will you try to explain to Ms. Chan that by exercising her right, she will help push pandas towards extinction? That she will be depriving your children and grandchildren (and people of the entire world), their right to see pandas roam freely?

The plight of pandas, elephants, rhinos, polar bears, tigers, lions, gorillas etc are well known, and citizens of the world are coming together to protect and save them. For these animals, many people know enough to understand that the right of hunters to hunt is at odds with the right of others to want these animals to survive and thrive in this world.

Do you know that sharks are facing exactly the same plight? I was surprised too when I first learned this. The case for sharks is far less fortunate. Sharks are not cute and furry like the panda. People fear them. Many do not know nor care to find out that shark populations are being fished to dangerously low levels. Several species of sharks are already on the "endangered" list; the same list animals like elephants, rhinos, polar bears, tigers, lions and gorillas are on. 1/3 of shark species are categorized as "vulnerable", meaning that they are fast approaching "endangered" status. If these species are not protected, they will move on to the next category of being "critically endangered", edging towards being "extinct in the wild". If nothing is done now to reduce demand and consumption, sharks will be in the same category with pandas in the predictable future.

In certain parts of the world's ocean, local populations of sharks have been completely removed from their natural habitat. To imagine this, you would have to imagine the plains of African savanna, completely devoid of lions, or elephants, or rhinos. To stretch the imagination even further, imagine a China without Chinese people. It is a frightening thought.

If you are able to agree with me that we should not kill pandas for their fur and meat, that we should not kill elephants for their tusks, that we should not kill rhinos for their horns and gorillas for their paws ... you will have to agree with me that we should not kill sharks for their fins.

Any argument by any race or culture that they must continue to hunt, kill, eat or dress themselves with the hide and parts of vulnerable or endangered species can no longer stand unchallenged ... for the simple reason that there is insufficient supply to satisfy existing or future demands. If we do not stop killing sharks for their fins to make sharkfin soup, there will be none of them left in the near future.

We need to realize one thing; we sit at the top of all food chains. We are the apex predator of everything on land, sea and air. There is no animal on earth that we cannot hunt and kill. With this power and position comes great responsibility. If we are not careful, we will upset the delicate balance needed in nature for all living things to thrive and survive. We have shown through our history that we are not always wise, not always careful. Many problems that exist in this world today, is caused by our mismanagement, shortsightedness and general folly. The bright side of this bleak situation is that we are capable of learning from our mistakes and correcting it. The key being our willingness to learn, and to make corrections. Many groups, governments and international bodies are working hard to save the world, trying to solve problems of global warming, the hole in the ozone, the plastic vortex, overpopulation, war and threat of nuclear annihilation etc etc.

At Shark Savers, we are doing our part to solve a global problem as well, an important body of work to protect an animal that will be driven to extinction if nothing is done. We believe that the solution to the problem is through awareness and education. If people are made aware of the issues, they will make informed decisions. We are also hopeful that more people will accept that while culture, tradition, heritage are good things worth preserving, these invariably have to adapt to and change with the times.

Consider this; it was part of the Chinese culture and tradition for parents to arrange who their children marry. The arranged-marriage tradition is very old and was held sacred for many many generations. Today, in developed countries and major cities of the world, this idea is considered outdated, out of sync with the times, inappropriate.

Consider also this: it was part of the Chinese culture and tradition to bind the feet of little girls. That women with bound feet are considered beautiful and desirable. This tradition is now completely abandoned, because it is no longer compatible with the times.

These are just two examples, with many more examples prevalent in other cultures and countries; slavery, universal suffrage, minority / women / children and gay rights etc. The gourmet tradition of eating sharkfin soup is in today's context, unsustainable and not reflective of current realities. This tradition has to adapt and change, together with everything else in life and in the world.

As a Chinese Singaporean living in Hong Kong, sharkfin soup is a dish I've encountered and consumed for many years in various social and familial settings; business dinners, wedding banquets, celebratory dinners in honor of grandparents, family elders, new born nephews and nieces. We even eat this while observing death anniversaries of family elders.

It would seem that just about every family gathering, for whatever reason, would warrant the need for this dish to be served. A sign of prestige and face for the host, honor and respect for the guest. Coming from a large extended family, a wide business and social network, meant encountering this dish no less than 30 times a year. Life was good. My stomach was very happy.

5 years ago, my stomach grew a conscience. The following were the things I learned that changed my mind about consuming sharkfin soup.

1). Sharks cannot be farmed, like cows, sheep, chickens, catfish, trout, crawfish, and crocodiles. It comes straight from the wild. Once supply in the wild is depleted, that's it ... there's no more, anywhere.

2). Sharks take a long time to mature and reproduce very slowly.

These two facts alone mean one thing: sharks cannot withstand intense overfishing pressures. With the growing prosperity of mainland Chinese, the demand for shark fin soup has gone far beyond what shark populations can support. Fisheries are removing sharks from the ocean at a rate that new shark births are unable to replenish. This means, the population of sharks will keep decreasing until there is none left. This is what makes the fin industry "unsustainable". When an industry, trade, business is deemed "unsustainable", it means there is no way for the activity to continue beyond a certain point. The activity will come to a complete halt when there is nothing left to continue on.

This is the case of the shark fishing industry. At the rate we are demanding and consuming sharkfins, fishermen, fisheries, traders and restaurants will continue to serve us until sharks are extinct. Sustainability and extinction concerns are at the heart of the shark fin soup story. If we do not stop or reduce our consumption drastically, sharks will disappear from this world and ocean completely.

With what you know now, we hope that you are persuaded to go find out more about the issues at hand. The sad story about sharks has several more chapters, covering topics of deplorable industry practices, animal cruelty, toxicity, the triads / underworld, the brutal forces of supply and demand etc. If you are interested to learn more, please get in touch with me.