Shark fin soup. It's the Louis Vuitton of Chinese dishes. A chewy meat, with virtually no taste, shark fin has, for centuries stood as a marker of affluence and power on Chinese dining tables. It symbolizes wealth and prestige in a country that is experiencing more and more of this.
But to presume that an animal so powerful, so deadly, as the shark, cannot also be vulnerable is a huge error. In fact, some of the world's most fearsome creatures: the tiger, the rhino, the shark, the whale, have become endangered for these very qualities. According to WWF, "In 1996 only 15 shark and related species were considered threatened; this has soared by 12 times in only a decade and by 2010 over 180 species were considered threatened."
Hong Kong is one of the largest consumers per capita of shark fins in the world and China's stellar economic rise has also meant a sharp increase in demand on the Mainland. But maintaining culinary habits in the name of tradition is a flimsy flag to wave in the face of dwindling population numbers for certain shark breeds. There is no pride or prestige to be had in the participation of species extinction, particularly one that has swam the oceans of this planet for 400 million years.
But the good news is that earlier this year the Chinese government announced they would prohibit official banquets from serving shark fin soup. The ban could take as long as three years to go into effect, and it remains to be seen how strictly it will be adhered to, but nonetheless is a very big step in the right direction.
The future is less certain for the minke whales, another awe-inspiring ocean creature too often meeting their end on high-end restaurant dinner plates. In the same week as the Chinese government announcing their plans regarding shark fin soup, the South Korean government came out with their plans to begin killing whales in its coastal waters under the banner of scientific research – although they have since appeared to backpedal from this.
Minke whales are the most widely hunted whale species in our oceans and continue to be threatened by continued commercial and/or "scientific" whaling by Iceland, Norway and Japan. But that's not all they face. The pointy end of a harpoon is now being crowded out by a host of other threats endangering these giant creatures. Threats like global warming, pollution, ozone depletion, noise (such as sonar weaponry) and industrial fishing that threatens the food supply of whales, and accidental entanglements in fishing gear. In short, minke whales have enough on their plate – the least we can spare them is ending up on ours.
And just as whales and sharks are sensitive to the changes in their ecosystem, so too will the ecosystem be sensitive to their loss. According to the WWF website sharks are a vital part of healthy ocean life: "Sharks not only eat fish but also marine mammals, keeping numbers of these predators in check. Great white shark in South Africa target Cape fur seals for example. As scavengers, sharks also remove dead and dying animals from the system, which may reduce the spread of disease."
Which makes this fight bigger than simply saving this animal or that. This is a fight for the very vibrancy of our great oceans. When you're looking out to that great expanse of deep blue, it can be hard to remember that over 80% of the earth’s creatures live in the oceans. It is a place that teems with colour and life – or at least it should do, when it's healthy. The ocean is not a landfill. Nor is it a seafood buffet from which we can harvest with huge, industrial, factory-style fishing boats to the point of extinction.
So isn't it time we replace shark fin soup with saving the shark, as the most prestigious marker of our own greatness?
Image © Alex Hofford / Greenpeace