I’ve never seen Jaws, but headlines of shark attacks in popular media were enough to convince me that sharks were mindless, evil animals that attack without mercy. It wasn’t until I watched Sharkwater last year that I realized how mistaken I was and how much responsibility I had as a Chinese Canadian to promote awareness about this important, misunderstood animal.
On average, less than four people worldwide die from shark attacks. You are more likely to get killed by a falling vending machine. Even if sharks were as dangerous as we’ve brainwashed ourselves to believe, does that mean they don’t deserve our protection? Elephants and tigers kill over 100 people each year. The bottom line is that we need to protect all animals to conserve biodiversity, regardless of their fluffiness or the sharpness of their teeth.
The Discovery Channel launched its Shark Week earlier this month. The annual television series showcases sharks—more than anything, however, it focuses on shark attacks. The programs paint the animals as ruthless death machines, designed to “seek and destroy”. Entertainment is great, but here’s the thing: sharks are being threatened with extinction. Continuing to demonize these animals is something we can no longer afford to do.
Sharks are ancient creatures that have roamed the Earth for over 400 million years and are under serious threat from overfishing. There are over 450 species of sharks, only a handful of which have been known to be aggressive (those species include the bull shark, the tiger shark, and, of course, the infamous great white). The largest fish in the world is a whale shark—it has no teeth and feeds primarily on plankton. The second largest fish in the world is the basking shark. It, too, filter feeds on plankton and was once abundant along the west coast of B.C.
As top predators also known as apex predators, sharks play an integral role in the ocean, which makes up over half of the world’s surface and provides more than half of our clean oxygen. They maintain the balance in the ocean on which our survival so grossly depends. Sharks have adapted to survive this long but now one-half of oceanic sharks are now being pushed to an elevated risk of extinction. The main cause for their populations’ decline? Shark fin soup.
A median of 38 million sharks are killed each year for shark fin soup. The soup is a staple of Chinese fine dining but its preparation has spawned an entire industry. The shark finning industry is inherently wasteful and inhumane. The fins make up an average of less than 10 percent of the shark’s total body weight. Thus, to maximize shark fin harvesting, sharks are often finned at sea and their bodies dumped back into the ocean—leaving the animal to suffer and bleed to death.
The challenge in phasing out this dish lies in its role as a centuries-old Chinese tradition. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine that is part of what is known as the “Big Four” dishes. They include shark fin, abalone, fish maw (the swim bladder of a fish), and sea cucumber. Shark fin is particularly important as it represents a symbol of status and face. Most popularly served at wedding banquets as part of the set menu, we used to say that a bride marrying into a family without shark fin soup on the table is marrying into a poor family. We know now that this is purely folklore and that shark fin soup is an ecologically destructive, cruel tradition—a tradition we can no longer keep.
A future void of sharks is becoming incredibly real, but consumers have the power to take a stand—not only for sharks but also for our community. Next time you hear that a friend or family member is going to serve shark fin, ask them if they know how it arrived on their table. Tell them that they have the opportunity to send a powerful, positive message with one simple change. It starts by taking shark fin soup off the menu.
Claudia Li is the founder of Shark Truth, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting awareness around shark fin soup from within the Chinese community.