Shark fin soup and shark fin siomai are popular dishes in many parts of the Philippines, as in the rest of East Asia. The truth is shark fin has no taste.

For centuries, shark fin has been standard fare in Chinese lauriats, especially wedding banquets. Having no taste of their own—not to mention, nutritional value—shark fin dishes have been around since the Ming dynasty primarily because they are expensive. According to some estimates, shark fin soup comprises 40 percent of the cost of a typical Chinese banquet.

The value of shark fin lies solely in the prestige it gives the banquet host, who risks losing “face” not to serve it. But this status symbol has wreaked havoc on the marine environment.

The damage continues to mount as the appetite for shark fin continues to balloon in China and other Asian countries with strong Chinese influence, where hundreds of millions of newly prosperous people demand dishes that were once available only to the wealthy elite.

Cruel practice

According to wildlife conservationists, much of the trade in shark fins is derived from fins cut from living sharks through a process called “finning.”

Since shark meat is worth much less, the finless and often still-living sharks are thrown back into the sea to make room on board the ship for more of the valuable fins. When returned to the ocean, the immobile sharks either die from suffocation or are consumed by other sharks or animals.

Consuming shark fin is not only harmful to the marine biodiversity, but promotes the cruel practice of shark finning, where sharks have their fins cut off then thrown back into the ocean, still alive, to die a horribly painful death,” a recent report quoted conservationist Grace Gabriel as saying.

It is our choice as consumers to say No to shark fin products,” added Gabriel, who is the Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Consuming wildlife equals killing.”

By 2017,  20 species of sharks could become extinct. Over 100 million sharks are taken from the seas annually.

Sharks have been around for the past 400 million years. However, they cannot survive the current onslaught. It takes most large sharks seven years to reach reproductive age—and the females give birth to only a few pups each year.

If sharks disappear, so will other fishes that are commercially and nutritionally important. Anti-finning advocates point to the Hawaiian Reefs model, which showed that the removal of tiger sharks caused the populations of tuna (tulingan, in Tagalog) and jacks (talakitok) to crash—due to a marked increase in seabirds, the shark’s primary prey.

Global campaigns

Campaigns have been launched worldwide, urging consumers to stop eating dishes containing shark fin. The results have been mixed, however.

NBA All-Star Yao Ming, for instance, pledged at a press conference in 2006 to stop eating shark fin soup. Yao’s comments went largely unreported in the Chinese media and drew a reproach from Chinese seafood industry associations. Ironically, one of the items on the basketball superstar’s wedding dinner menu in 2007 was shark fin soup.

In Hong Kong, Disneyland has dropped the dish from its wedding banquet menu after international pressure from environmental groups, which threatened to boycott its theme parks worldwide. The University of Hong Kong has also banned shark fin from being served on campus.

In Malaysia, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry banned shark fin soup from official function menus as a commitment to the Malaysian Nature Society in September 2007.

In New Zealand, great white sharks have been given full protection in territorial waters. However, it is still legal to carry out finning on other shark species on the condition that the fish is dead.

In the United States, federal authorities have issued a ban on finning, applicable only to US-registered vessels in US territorial waters. Also, shark fins cannot be imported into the US without entire carcasses.

In the Philippines, a draft executive order was reportedly submitted to President Arroyo for her signature. The order would ban “the catching, sale, purchase, possession, transportation and exportation of all sharks and rays in the country.”

The proposed order notes, among others, that the Philippines is “the center of the center of marine biodiversity, having about two-thirds of the known marine species of the Pacific in its coastal waters.” The proposal also points out that sharks and rays, as top predators of the sea, “are important to the ecological balance of the marine environment.”

Proponents of the comprehensive ban have been eagerly awaiting Malacañang’s promulgation of the order, which would make the Philippines a leader in shark conservation.

The draft order was submitted in October. To this day, however, the Palace has issued no word on the proposal’s fate.

With the coming Lunar New Year Festivals—which start January 26 this year—shark fin soup and similar “delicacies” will again be on the menu of hundreds of millions of Asian banquets.

The slaughter continues