In the Land of Shark Fin Soup

Posted on September 7, 2012
Written by: Cristina Zenato
Tags: Cristina Zenato 

Last year I was invited to Singapore to help create a new educational program about sharks and their role in the oceans. It was my first time traveling so far East, so it was my first time getting so close to the areas known for consuming large amount of shark fin soup.

It was a great opportunity to be invited through the front door by a culture that traditionally consumes the soup, yet is ready to start working towards education and change. It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.  

I read a lot about Singapore and their rules, trying to learn and understand before arriving, but nothing can prepare you untill you really experience the place. There is a lot to take in: the buildings, the roads and the ships harbored everywhere, but what I loved the most were the varieties of cultures, the colors and the food. Immediately I was aware of the opportunity to be able to reach so many people and to experience so many different culinary cultures.

Inthelandofsharkfin.JPGOnce again I realized that the work I do in the scuba diving world is still limited by the capability of people to dive with sharks, where in Singapore that element is not necessary anymore. Strolling around town I soaked in everything I could, and I came across numerous restaurants with shark fins on display. Some of them were packaged with cute red ribbons, as if they were a delicate present to be presented to somebody. And for some they are.

I was invited in such restaurants by very gracious hosts. I ate in those restaurants, grateful for the welcome and the treatment I received. It was not easy to walk by and watch all those fins. Not easy at all. There is a sense of loss and a sense of sadness in these dehydrated fins sitting in a glass case, displayed with pride.

I respected the choices of my hosts, because they want to change the perception of people around them. They are also the ones who understand their world best, and know how to approach their culture, how best to speak and educate their community. If I want to be able to help I need to learn to speak “the language” and to appreciate how the society and the culture work. Only in that manner I can find my place and have my message heard.

After all, if we really think about it, for a lot of people a fish is a fish, and unless educated in a proper manner, it is hard to understand why it would be acceptable to consume salmon but not shark. I do not have to go that far East to see that. I can comfortably sit in my own culture, back in Italy, where fishing and eating fish goes hand in hand with going on a scuba diving vacation. We are people of the Mediterrenean and we have always lived on the supplied fish of the sea that surrounds us. Our culture is permeated in fishing, fishermen and eating fish. Some of the sharks consumed in Italy do not even have a recognizable shark name by the time they get into the fish store, cleaned, filetted and ready to sell. As a child I consumed those fish, mom brought them to the table, and that was the meal served, no questions asked.

Only with time and interest did I realize that some of those animals were actually sharks. The first hard place to educate was at my own table, in my own family. It was hard for my parents at first to understand why choices had to be made. It was a dead fish after all, ready to be purchased and eaten. And with that experience in mind I approached Singapore, the shark fins in the restaurant windows and the invitation of people who, although they understand the need for change, also understand the need to approach education according to the culture they come from.



Cristina Zenato is Head of Diving at UNEXSO, Grand Bahama Island, a world-renowned shark diver, and a member of the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. Cristina is sharing her considerable knowledge of and experience in diving with sharks through a new Shark Savers' blog series. This is the fourth in the series.


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