Shark-Fin Soup and the Conservation Challenge

Publication: Time

Author: Krista Mahr

08/09/2010 - The first time I tried shark-fin soup was at Time Warner's annual dinner in Hong Kong, a few weeks after I had moved to the city. A server came to our table with a cluster of small white bowls, which a few of my colleagues politely declined. I knew the soup had a whiff of controversy around it, but I hadn't yet formed a personal policy, so I gave it a try. I found it underwhelming. The taste of shark-fin soup comes mostly from the quality of its broth. The fin itself, which I've eaten sliced into long, thin pieces, provides texture — a crucial element in Cantonese cuisine. (Shark fin falls somewhere between chewy and crunchy.)

Part of the reason the soup doesn't dazzle me is the price — up to $100 a bowl in some restaurants. It's hard to say what a $100 bowl of soup should taste like, but this isn't it. Of course, the price is part of the point: shark-fin soup is a luxury item in Hong Kong and China, its biggest consumers; it's a dish that embodies east Asia's intertwined notions of hospitality and keeping (or losing) "face." Once favored by Chinese Emperors for its rarity, shark-fin soup is now eaten at weddings, corporate celebrations and high-falutin' business lunches to demonstrate a host's good fortune. "It's like champagne," says Alvin Leung, owner of Bo Innovation, a two-Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong. "You don't open a bottle of Coke to celebrate. It's a ritual."

Unfortunately, this gesture of largesse comes with a price tag much bigger than that $100 bowl. Last week, as millions of viewers in the U.S. tuned in to Discovery Channel's Shark Week, probably nearly 1.5 million sharks were killed in the shark-fin industry — just like the weeks before. All told, up to 70 million sharks are culled annually for the trade, despite the fact that 30% of shark species are threatened with extinction. Indonesia, India, Taiwan, Spain and Mexico land the most sharks, according a recent survey of global shark populations conducted by the Pew Environment Group. "Sharks have made it through multiple mass extinctions on our planet," says Matt Rand, director of Pew's Global Shark Conservation division. "Now many species are going to go the way of the dinosaur — for a bowl of soup."

Read the article Shark-Fin Soup and the Conservation Challenge in its entirety on the Time Web site.

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