You've probably heard a lot about shark fin soup recently. It's been all over the news; Yao Ming is plastered on busses across the country begging you not to eat it. Richard Branson is talking about it. But why now?
The soup has been around for centuries; why is it only recently becoming a conservation issue? And why are you reading about it on a tech blog?
Well, first off, we cover science too; but that's not the point. Shark fin soup is actually a tech issue, an environmental issue born of the modern age. Just like carpal tunnel syndrome, e-waste and eye strain.
It's like this: Thanks to the the explosive growth of the country's tech industry, China is getting richer. And with this prosperity, increasing numbers of sharks are horrifyingly abused for an outrageously expensive and apparently bland dish. Man, why can't this stuff at least taste good?
Shark fin soup was once an emperor's dish. But with the record-breaking increase in wealth in China, the soup—which can fetch up to $200 per bowl—is now available to the rapidly expanding Chinese upper middle class. And that means many species of sharks, some of them already endangered, are being not just overfished, but mutilated for their fins while still alive. And then thrown back into the ocean to bleed to death. Lately it's happening to 1.5 million sharks per week. Up to 70 million per year.
Warning: don't watch this if you cry easily (like me). BUT, props to Gordon Ramsay for having the balls to make it. I was seriously worried he might get shot as he poked around shark fin processing facilities (he was assaulted twice during the filming). "It's without a doubt the worst act of animal cruelty I've ever seen," he says.
This is the evil that goes on: fishermen use a miles-long "longlines," which have multiple branching lines and hooks attached. The lines indiscriminately catch whatever gets in their way, including sea turtles (it happens on Ramsay's nightmare trip) and fish. Shark fin hunters don't discriminate when it comes to species: it could be the endangered scalloped hammerhead or the also endangered thresher. Populations of both have declined 50 percent in the past 15 years. It could be a baby silky that hasn't yet had a chance to bear offspring.
When they pull them onto the boat, they hack off their fins (tails included) while they're still alive. Then they toss them back into the ocean, alive, to bleed to death.
Great, now I'm crying.
The most infuriating part is that only about 5 percent of the shark is used for food. The fins go for $28 per pound, while the meat only brings $2. That's if anyone wants it at all. When the sharks are large enough to be coveted for their fins, their meat apparently tastes terrible.
Chinese basketball star Yao Ming along with Richard Branson recently convened in Shanghai to ask 30 of China's most influential businesspeople to help quell demand for the soup. Gordon Ramsay got together an elite group of Chinese restauranteurs and showed them footage of fishermen mutilating sharks for their fins. They seemed appropriately shocked, and the footage showed two putting up "Stop Eating Shark Fin Soup" signs. Who knows how many will be able to stomach giving up all that revenue.
Shark fin soup is a strong Chinese tradition, consumed to celebrate special occasions, and there's nothing wrong with that. But consuming it in such large quantities is just not sustainable. And the cruel fishing practices have to end now. The California Senate recently passed a ban on shark fin imports, joining Hawaii, Oregon and Washington—it's a start.
You can keep up with our Science Editor, Kristen Philipkoski, on Twitter.
Image: Shutterstock/Jordan Tan