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News of the Food

Bowl of Disaster

By Stett Holbrook

Order a bowl of shark fin soup at a fancy Chinese restaurant, and expect to pay $20 or more. But you get precious little shark fin for your money--just a few stringy strands of the cartilaginous meat. That's not only bad value, it's an environmental crime when you consider how those few grams of shark fin got to your soup bowl.

Not only are sharks being harvested in numbers that have caused their numbers to crash by as much as 85 percent worldwide, many of the sharks are caught for their fins only. The rest of the fish is discarded. Shark "finning" is a particularly gruesome practice where fins are hacked off live fish and the bodies are tossed overboard, where the powerless sharks are left to sink, bleed and die.

As a top predator, sharks are slow to reproduce, and some species produce only two pups every two years. The lucrative shark fin industry, which has grown dramatically over the past 15 years, has had a particularly devastating impact on the fishery.

"The shark populations are getting so that there's not much left," says Pete Knights, executive director of San Francisco­based WildAid, an environmental nonprofit group waging a campaign to reform the shark fin trade. "It really looks pretty grim."

WildAid is working to ban finning and promote a sustainable shark fishery. The organization is focusing its campaign on Taiwan, Thailand, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, countries where shark fin consumption is highest.

Several countries have banned finning, including the United States, Costa Rica, Ecuador, South Africa and the European Union. But there are still millions of miles of unprotected waters, and fishing is notoriously hard to regulate. WildAid is working in Central and South America, where fishermen are reportedly raiding marine preserves for sharks.

But with prices for the fins approaching $800 a pound for some species, the trade continues to attract fishermen. The only other way to make as much money is drug trafficking.

"There's so much money involved," Knights says.

The fins, which are sold dried, are cooked down until they break into threadlike strands of meat that have little flavor. It's the chicken broth, ginger, garlic and other ingredients that give the soup its taste. But it's not really about flavor. It's a status symbol. Diners think they're big shots if they can afford shark fin. The soup is particularly popular at weddings, birthdays and banquets where hosts can show off their largess.

But Knights says once consumers become aware of the barbarous practice of finning and the importance of sharks to the marine ecosystem, they quickly loose their appetite for the pricey soup. I know I have.

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From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

© Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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