Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)
Chapter 4. DRIED SEAFOOD STREET
It can be a very popular, and a very noble, food.
—Yip Chiu Sung, vice chairman of Hong Kong’s Sharkfin and Marine Products Association, speaking of shark’s fin soup
Probably the best thing that could happen to sharks is that people lose their taste for shark’s fin soup.
—David Balton, deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama
Each kind of auctioneer has a style. There’s the robust cattle auctioneer, who spits out numbers in a bold, singsong voice that determines where animals go to be bred or slaughtered; the elegant estate auctioneer, whose rich, mellifluous tone entices art and furniture collectors to fork over their savings; and then there’s Charlie Lim.
A spectacled, wiry man in his early fifties, Lim sports a short-sleeved, button-down shirt and a modified bowl cut that lets his straight black bangs fall neatly across his forehead. Standing in front of the sort of shiny whiteboards that appear in classrooms and corporate conference rooms across the globe, he doesn’t talk much as he auctions off his wares; instead, he shakes an abacus in short, regular bursts. Much of the time, the clicking of the beads is the loudest sound in the room.
Lim is a shark fin trader. More precisely, he’s the secretary of Hong Kong’s Sharkfin and Marine Products Association. And at the moment he’s standing in a nondescript auction house whose spare white decor evokes a Chelsea art gallery. But when the auction begins, the buyers crowd around Lim in a semicircle, jostling for a look at the gray triangular fins splayed across the floor. A shark fin auction is as fast as it is secretive. By the time Lim takes his position at the front of the room, one of his assistants has already marked on the board behind him—in a bright red felt-tipped pin—which sorts of fins are being auctioned in any given lot. As soon as men dump the contents of a burlap bag on the floor, the bidding begins: any interested buyer must approach Lim and punch his suggested price into a single device that only the auctioneer and his assistant can see. The bidders must make a calculated guess about what price will prevail, rather than compete with each other openly for a given bag of fins. Within two minutes the lot is sold, and the winning price per kilo is duly noted on the board. Lim’s assistants sweep the pile back into its bag, using a dustpan to gather any errant fins that might have escaped to the side. Another bag—containing the first dorsal, pectorals, and lower lobe of the caudal fins that are most valuable—is dumped on the floor, and the cycle begins again.
The group of men gathered here—and it’s all men—are experienced traders who hear about these auctions through word of mouth. There is no downtime, no chitchat; in fact, there aren’t even chairs for them to sit on during the auction. Given the quick pace of shark fin sales, they must be prepared to bid without hesitation. The bidders show no emotion during the entire process: this isn’t fine art they plan to furnish their homes with, or livestock they will devote months to raising. It is a heap of desiccated objects they will seek to transfer to someone else as soon as they acquire it.
Lim does make a few remarks in Cantonese about the fins before his feet, but it’s not the sort of chatter most auctioneers use to boost the price of a given lot. He’s not saying, “Take a look at these gray beauties!” or anything to that effect. Sometimes he indicates the species that’s collected in a given bag: blacktip, hammerhead, or blue shark. But a shark fin auction is not really about salesmanship. It’s about moving product.
Some rare metals and stones have carried a high market price for centuries. Basic foodstuffs, including several fish species, have also held a quantifiable commercial value over time. The shark trade, however, is a more recent arrival to the world scene. Unlike many other fish, such as salmon or red snapper, for example, shark does not derive its value from its taste or nutritional worth. In fact, there’s ample evidence that the high levels of toxins sharks accumulate in their bodies pose a potential threat to humans, just as tuna does. While many consumers—especially in China—view shark meat and fins as nutritious, sharks are likely to contain high levels of mercury because they are large, slow-growing fish that consume other fish as their prey, which allows mercury to build up in their muscle tissues. WildAid, an environmental group that crusades against shark fin trafficking, commissioned a study by the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research in 2001 that found shark fins in Bangkok’s markets contain mercury concentrations up to forty-two times above the safe limit for human health.1
The market for sharks is based more on the animals’ mystique than anything else. In the same way that De Beers has convinced young men across the globe that women will be more likely to accept their marriage proposal if it comes with a diamond ring, men like Lim have managed to persuade Asian consumers that the very presence of stringy shark fin cartilage in their soup speaks to their own social status. Other marketers have different pitches, bottling sharks’ mysterious promise in a range of salves. One U.S. entrepreneur has made a decent amount of money peddling the line that sharks cure cancer, while other companies are in the business of advertising shark oil’s anti-aging properties. None of these appeals are based on science, but they tap into our long-held beliefs about the power of an animal that can consume us. And nowhere do they resonate more strongly than in Asia, where an ever-expanding group of consumers is seeking new ways to demonstrate its upwardly mobile status.
While the shark fin trade has evolved into a global enterprise, spanning multiple oceans and continents, at one point or another it almost always stops here, in a warren of narrow Hong Kong streets that make up two neighborhoods, Sai Ying Poon and Sheung Wan. It’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer variety of parched delicacies on display: seaweed, scallops, and oysters, all spilling out into the street. Auction houses have glass doors that keep their commodities out of the reach of ordinary customers, but these stores don’t have the same rarefied rules. A nutty, slightly cloying scent pervades the entire neighborhood: the smell of the sea, withered up and left to die.
Roughly half of the world’s shark fins move through Hong Kong, which serves as a gateway for both the mainland Chinese market and other Asian countries that consume shark’s fin soup. Tracking the shark fin trade in recent years has become increasingly complicated as mainland China has started playing a bigger role in directly receiving fin imports from overseas, rather than using Hong Kong as an intermediary. In 2000, the five major markets for shark fins—Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore—reported importing 11,600 metric tons of fins, of which Hong Kong accounted for 47 percent. The numbers keep rising: in 2008, Hong Kong alone imported 10,002 metric tons of fins.2 But as China’s role as an importer of raw shark fins has grown, it’s become harder to track the overall trade because Chinese government figures are so unreliable.
For example, the shark fin trade increased at a steady clip of 5 percent a year during the late 1990s and early twenty-first century (with the exception of 1998, when the Asian financial crisis depressed sales). But in recent years Hong Kong imports have dipped slightly, clocking in at 5,337 metric tons in 2006. This is due in part to the fin trade shifting to other cities in China, but it’s hard to gauge what’s happening there. Shelley Clarke, a biology professor at Imperial College London who knows the shark fin trade better than most people on earth, says China underestimates its fin imports by anywhere from 24 to 49 percent.3
Clarke has made a career of studying shark fin trading. While she doesn’t blend in with the crowd in Sai Ying Poon—she is British, with fair skin and strawberry blond hair—Clarke has lived in Asia for more than a dozen years, and is fluent in both Mandarin and Japanese. As a graduate student, she made it her mission to infiltrate shark trade auctions, to get a sense of which types of sharks ended up on the chopping block, since traders use names that are not strict translations and often correlate to, but are not identical with, certain species. (Basking shark falls into the “Nuo Wei Tian Jiu” fin category, for example, but it’s not the Mandarin term for that species.) To ferret out these distinctions, Clarke—working with Mahmood Shivji, a Nova Southeastern University professor, and Ellen Pikitch, executive director of Stony Brook University’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science—used DNA analysis to figure out which species were being traded and then used mathematical formulas to get a sense of how many sharks are killed overall and sold each year for their fins.
Their conclusion: 73 million sharks are being caught and killed worldwide each year to supply the fin trade. And regardless of modest market shifts, Hong Kong remains the center of the global shark fin trade. The majority of shark fins come in by boat, though a small portion come in by plane: in 2006 a grand total of eighty-four countries shipped fins here, and by 2008 the number of nations had risen to eighty-seven. While the order shifts from time to time, the list of countries bringing fins to Hong Kong remains pretty much the same, with Spain, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates topping the list. The United States used to rank relatively high until President Bill Clinton, facing little political resistance, established a shark-finning ban off America’s coasts at the end of his term in office.
The shark fin trade encompasses anywhere from thirty to forty different kinds of sharks at any given time, though the Hong Kong market tends to focus on about fourteen species, ranging from blue shark to scalloped hammerhead. Still, it’s size rather than species that matters when it comes to price. Shark fins can sell for $880 per pound or more on the Hong Kong market, and a single fin from a basking shark—the second-largest fish in the world—sold in Singapore in 2003 for $57,000 (all values throughout are in U.S. dollars).
While several species, like the great white, whale, and basking sharks, are prized for their immensity, it’s the fish nicknamed “the rabbit of the sea” that keeps the fin market humming. Blue sharks are the workhorses, the ones that reproduce regularly and aren’t about to chew the fishermen who catch them into little bits. They make up at least 17 percent of the international shark fin trade, according to Clarke and Shivji, which means at least 10.7 million blue sharks—which fishermen from Mexico to Indonesia pull ashore—are killed annually. When you match those numbers with the stock assessments fishery experts have done of blue shark populations in the Atlantic and north Pacific, it comes close to those stocks’ “maximum sustainable yield.” And the fact that we’re taking as many blue sharks out of the sea each year as it can afford to give up worries Clarke, since, in her words, “any catch that approaches or exceeds this level is of concern.”
Fins arrive in Hong Kong because the place epitomizes trading. More than a decade after the United Kingdom relinquished its 155-year-old hold on Hong Kong and handed it to China as a “special administrative region,” this 426-square-mile territory of roughly seven million people still excels at buying and selling goods. (Ten years after the handover, it had a higher per capita gross domestic product than Europe’s four biggest economies, as well as Japan’s.) At times the major islands that make up Hong Kong resemble different versions of the same mall, with air-conditioning blasting from shops into the streets and brightly colored neon signs touting different products with unbridled enthusiasm.
Decades ago, when Hong Kongers were more focused on producing goods rather than just passing them along, they used to hunt sharks. As far back as 1940, one Hong Kong resident named S. Y. Lin reported, “Sharks are plentiful, sharks are everywhere,” and by the 1960s a specific fishery aimed at catching sharks had started booming here. Shark slaying was never a prestigious occupation: most fishermen belonged to a social caste called the Hokklos, hailing from China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Treated like social outsiders, Hokklos remain segregated today in Hong Kong society and can occasionally be spotted walking the streets in hobo-like clothing.
As overfishing depleted Hong Kong’s local shark populations, its fishery went bust in the 1980s. But that only marked the beginning of the ascent of Hong Kong’s shark fin market. The island’s unique status in China made it the perfect place to traffic in shark fins. Under “one country, two systems,” which governs China’s relationship with Hong Kong, the former British colony is allowed to continue its particular brand of capitalism: bringing things in and shipping them out without imposing heavy tariffs.
If anyone is in charge of the shark fins coming into and out of Hong Kong, it’s Cheung Chi-sun, who serves as senior endangered species protection officer for Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department. Cheung is an elegant, kindly bureaucrat who has worked in the department for more than two decades. He attends international conferences like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which is held every three years, and he compiles plenty of statistics about the comings and goings of shark fins in his corner of the world. But he doesn’t do much about it: his agency simply charges an administrative fee that amounts to about eighty cents per shipment of fins.
“In general, there’s no control,” Cheung explains to me as we sit in his cramped government office. “It all depends on how you see these kinds of things. Some people will say all things should be protected, and the government should regulate these things. On the other side, there is the argument for free trade.”
Cheung and the Hong Kong government side with the free traders. “Fisheries in Hong Kong is not an important business,” he continues. “Hong Kong is basically a very commercial, or financial, city.” And when it comes to preserving sharks, he adds, “it’s not a single country’s responsibility; it’s a global responsibility.”
All the same, Cheung sees the identical numbers that Shelley Clarke does, and as he nears retirement, he’s beginning to wonder if the boxes of fins moving through Hong Kong indicate a problem. Cheung envisions a world of “sustainable trade,” where the sharks that fishermen take out of the sea each year are replaced through natural births. Whether that’s happening, he says, “we really don’t know. I must admit the volume of trade is really alarming … For thousands of years people are using natural resources for human benefit. The problem is people are using too much, so there may not be enough for the next generation.”
While Cheung and others envision a world in which a moderate, regulated shark trade could thrive, this is an illusion. With a handful of possible exceptions, sharks cannot be harvested sustainably because they cannot reproduce rapidly enough to offset these human-induced losses. A sustainable shark fishery is as unrealistic as reasonable bald eagle hunting.
Several decades ago the world made a decision it was no longer acceptable to hunt whales, and in 1986 the international whaling moratorium took effect. Three countries have defied the ban over the years—Japan, Norway, and Iceland—along with a handful of aboriginal groups who were exempted from the moratorium at the outset. In each case, these societies argue whaling represents such a strong cultural tradition they should not have to abandon it altogether. The same arguments can be applied to sharks, of course. But for the most part the international community has rejected this line of reasoning, concluding that there are some marine animal populations that humanity has depleted to such an extent that they need extraordinary new protections if they are to survive. It is hard to make these policy decisions when the answer involves absolutes and there is no obvious compromise. But in certain instances, science gives us no other alternatives.
On a hot, humid evening in July, my friend Candice To and I make our way down Hong Kong’s Hennessy Road to grab a bite to eat. Candice and I are searching for seafood, and we find it in Tanyoto restaurant, an impressive-looking, multistoried establishment that overlooks the busy thoroughfare.
While different parts of sharks’ bodies can serve different purposes, depending on cultures and regions of the world, shark fin has just one purpose: to make soup. Since so much of sharks’ current predicament stems from the rising demand for shark’s fin soup, I want to taste it for myself, and this seems like as good a place as any. The dining room is draped in sparkling white Christmas lights, and the wait-staff displays the kind of intense efficiency I’ve come to associate with Hong Kong. Our server sports a black suit and has an elaborate piece of technology firmly attached to his ear, reminiscent of what a Secret Service agent would wear.
While I had heard of shark’s fin soup costing enormous sums—$100 or more for a bowl that serves four people—Tanyoto’s version seems like a bargain, at just $10 for a single serving. Within minutes our waiter brings a small, covered ceramic bowl to our table and sets it down, barking into his earpiece the entire time. He removes the cover with great fanfare, for my inspection. This is the famed yu chi, or fish wing, soup, which started in southern China but has now spread to every Asian outpost in the world.
I stare down at the concoction, which resembles a traditional noodle soup with seafood thrown in: a golden broth suspending items ranging from small prawns to unidentified circular objects. It looks perfectly attractive, but not extraordinary.
Candice dips her chopsticks into the bowl, digging for some elusive target. “Here it is, no, here, here I’ve found it,” she declares, capturing a tiny, gelatinous string that measures an inch at most.
“That’s shark fin?” I ask, incredulous. “You’re kidding me.”
“No, no, that’s it,” Candice replies.
I have found one of the primary sources of our global fishing frenzy. It is a translucent, tasteless bit of noodle, known in scientific terms as ceratotrichia, that fans out to support the fin in any given shark. This is the moment that I come face-to-face with shark’s fin soup’s amazing secret: it is one of the greatest scams of all time, an emblem of status whose most essential ingredient adds nothing of material value to the end product.
There are plenty of tasty but morally objectionable food items on the market: foie gras, which requires farmers to force-feed geese repeatedly; veal, which entails raising baby calves in cramped conditions before killing them; and fatty bluefin tuna, whose populations have been devastated in recent years as fishermen have sought to satisfy the upscale sushi market’s considerable demand. While critics can make a strong argument for why these practices should be abolished—cities like Chicago have even banned the sale of foie gras on the grounds that the process of making it is too cruel to be tolerated—even they would acknowledge this suffering yields a gastronomic payoff. This is not the case with shark fin, which could be replaced with a plain rice noodle at a moment’s notice.
This is the most stunning aspect of the entire economic empire that has arisen around shark’s fin soup: it is, to be blunt, a food product with no culinary value whatsoever. It is all symbol, no substance. Throughout my time in Hong Kong, I asked whether a noodle substitute, which could feature the same stringy texture and lack of taste, would succeed in the marketplace. No one, not even the most ardent environmental activists, seemed willing to entertain this idea. It would be deceptive, they reasoned, to coax consumers into eating a shark’s fin soup devoid of its central ingredient. Millions of people who scarf down California sushi rolls with fake crabmeat do not seem to have a problem with seafood-product substitution, but for some reason restaurateurs and conservationists alike are worried about asking shark’s fin soup eaters to make the same sort of swap. Since the central premise behind shark’s fin soup rests on the act of killing the shark itself, rather than the pleasure in eating it, there’s no way to save the animal and still preserve the value of its namesake dish.
The people who produce shark’s fin soup don’t pretend this ingredient adds anything substantive to their product. One afternoon I am lucky enough to get an exclusive crash course in the making of shark’s fin soup, and I can testify that shark fins are the least important part of the recipe.
Norman Ho is director of the Coral Seafood Restaurant on Des Voeux Road, in the heart of Hong Kong’s dried-seafood district. He’s an interior decorator by trade, having run a restaurant for two years in the late 1970s before switching over to decorating eating establishments full-time. In 2004 he took over the Coral Seafood Restaurant, a multistoried edifice he had once decorated.
Part of Ho’s business is shark’s fin soup. The restaurant’s mainstay is dim sum, which it serves every day. But the majority of the business’s income comes from the seafood and fish it serves, and shark’s fin soup alone makes up as much as 20 percent of the restaurant’s total take. During our talk Ho did some quick calculations in his head and realized that he serves 2,820 bowls a month of the stuff: a large bowl runs just under $80, with a small bowl costing a little more than $25. Ho is not particularly eager to peddle shark’s fin soup: it’s a hassle to make, and he says it’s not as big a profit maker as some might assume because it costs so much to prepare. “Being a seafood restaurant, we have to sell everything,” he explains. “It’s the customers’ request. If they have a wedding banquet, they order it. We don’t want to sell shark’s fin, but it’s the customers’ request.”
Ho’s problem is not that he’s worried about sharks—“You can take them for a long, long time,” he says—it’s the fact that making shark’s fin soup is an elaborate, costly process. He starts with the dried triangular fin that likely came into Hong Kong but was transported by barge on the Pearl River delta to Guangdong, China, where labor is cheaper and there are looser water pollution and sewage laws. It takes two to three days to process the fins, which are immersed in hot water before workers use a knife to remove the fin scales manually, along with the main bone. In the old days these fins would dry in the sun for a few days; now they’re shoved into an oven for a few hours. (Ho says he still prefers sun-dried fins: “I can tell whether a fin has been dried in an oven. It’s softer; a fin dried in sunlight will not bend.”) Some shark fins need to be plunged into hot water again for anywhere between three and eight hours after the oven treatment, while others do not. The cream-colored fins Ho imports resemble massive feathers or quills, with one very smooth side. They smell vaguely fishlike, but in a nonoffensive way, and the price they fetch varies based on what sort of fin they are. Pectoral fins produce the most membrane-like “needles,” as they’re called, while dorsal and triangular fins offer up a more modest yield, making them less valuable.
Once the fins arrive, Coral Seafood Restaurant workers put the fins in cold tap water for half a day to soften them and then transfer them to hot water with ginger and spring onions to boil them. At this point the shark fin and the needles will be tender, and kitchen workers will soak them in tap water for four more hours. The entire preparation amounts to a winnowing process, leaving an end product that is just 30 percent the weight of the original fin. At that point the fin and the needles can be boiled for six to eight hours with chicken stock and Chinese ham to produce shark’s fin soup’s base: cooks will throw in plenty of meat, ham, chicken, and pork to add flavor, because Ho knows the same thing I discovered during my shark’s fin soup tasting. “There’s no taste,” he says flatly. “All the taste comes from the soup. You have to put the shark fin and the soup together … To serve the shark’s fin soup is more or less status.” The power of shark’s fin soup to convey status on those who consume it is enormous, and it pervades Chinese society. A coterie of interests have helped cultivate the delicacy’s elevated status, from popular restaurants to wedding planners. While serving shark’s fin soup at nuptials has been a tradition for many years among elites, the Chinese bridal industry has turned it into an essential element of any middle-class wedding. As China’s economy expands, this means more and more wedding parties are putting it on the menu. Priscilla Chang, who works at Moon Love Wedding Planner & Production, makes sure that every one of her clients adds it to the list for their wedding day. “For people who attend the wedding, their friends and relatives, to judge whether the banquet is good, they’ll look at the fish and the shark fin,” Chang explains.
Most Hong Kong couples—and many mainland Chinese ones—buy set wedding packages, and it’s the quality of the shark’s fin soup, and the fish, that determines the price of the package. The soup alone accounts for 20 percent of the package price, Chang estimates. The soup even plays a key role in the banquet ritual itself: once it comes out and the couple has finished eating it, they have received their cue to visit each table and toast their guests. Everyone seems to acknowledge this: when I ask, through a translator, whether a young bride and her mother ever quarreled in her presence over the question of whether to serve shark’s fin soup, Chang seems surprised at the question. “Everybody wants fins,” she responds.
In the end, even a glamorous Western icon like the Four Seasons Hotel is no different from Coral Seafood Restaurant. From its perch on Finance Street, the Four Seasons Hotel has one of Hong Kong’s best views, with a massive glass front overlooking Victoria Harbor. The hotel offers two ballrooms and five private restaurant dining rooms for couples looking to get hitched, along with a secluded room in the destination spa so the bride can prepare for the big event.
Nicola Chilton-Matsukawa, the hotel’s spokeswoman, estimates the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong averages two hundred weddings a year, and all of them feature shark’s fin soup. She looks a little pained when discussing the subject of shark fins, but hastens to emphasize that it’s simply part of doing business in town.
“Weddings are a big business for us. And shark fin is a traditional part of the Chinese wedding banquet,” she says. “It’s just part of their culture. You can’t not have it.”
While shark fin purveyors primarily rely on major celebratory events to move their product, they also try to offer a range of health reasons to boost sales on a more regular basis. Lim, the auctioneer, says it “increases the amount of collagen in your bones.” The owner of Yuen Fat Seafood Trading, Leung Cheong, whose store boasts an enormous four-foot-high ivory-colored fin wrapped with a red ribbon and encased in glass, says the fins “have anti-cancer properties, are for the kidney and for balancing the body.”
Cheung, the Hong Kong fisheries official, doesn’t buy all of that. He just knows that if his son had a wedding banquet, his parents would lecture him about serving shark’s fin soup in order to preserve his family’s good reputation. “It’s some sort of showing of respect for the guests, not because it’s good for your health,” he says. “This is a tradition for maybe several hundred years.”
Giam Choo Hoo, a Singapore-based representative of the shark fin industry, can tell you exactly how far back the shark’s fin soup sipping tradition dates. It came to be considered a delicacy during the Sung Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279, and it became an integral part of formal banquets during the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. During that time, he says, a Chinese admiral named Cheng Ho journeyed to Africa with his fleet, and after seeing villagers discard the fins in favor of the meat, they came back with sharks as part of their bounty. But since Chinese fishermen were mainly focused on the meat, Giam says, people faced a quandary. “They thought, how are we going to use all of that?” The answer, of course, was shark’s fin soup. Six centuries ago the world dismissed fins as worthless and tossed them aside; now it’s the shark’s body fishermen throw overboard while preserving its fins to generate cash.
As Giam explains this to me, I am surrounded by the shark fin trade heavyweights of Hong Kong. Lim, the secretary of Hong Kong’s Sharkfin and Marine Products Association, has convened a special meeting in his organization’s conference room for my benefit, so he and his colleagues can explain what exactly they do for a living. Giam has come in from Singapore; C. P. Mak—an elderly, balding gentleman with enormous, bushy white eyebrows whom everyone refers to as “the godfather of shark fins”—has come over from the street stall he still operates. Yip Chiu Sung, the association’s heavyset vice chairman who heads its shark fin and sea cucumber team, in addition to running his own business, is there, as is the group’s chairman, Chiu Ching Cheung. In the middle of the conference table there’s a small plastic shark with gigantic white teeth encased in plastic, which strikes me as sort of endearing.
With me are two local university students I’ve brought along to translate. They represent the small but fervent pro-shark lobby in Hong Kong. Allen To and Shadow Sin, along with Vivian Lam, another graduate student, have begun to advocate for sharks within both academia and their own social circles, a sort of emerging rebellion against this long-held tradition. Once we leave the meeting with the fin traders, they explain how they are trying to shift public attitudes toward sharks.
Lam is a bubbly, brilliant researcher who studies marine science at the University of Hong Kong. A native Hong Konger, she is as devoted to her family and her puppy as she is to environmental conservation. This sparks conflict at home on occasion, like when she questions whether her father—who imports lumber from Thailand—is supporting illegal logging. (Under her prodding, Lam’s father now adheres to a set of sustainable forestry practices.) Few moments have been as tense, however, as when Lam tried to resist eating shark’s fin soup at a cousin’s wedding in June 1999. Sitting with her family in Hong Kong’s Convention and Exhibition Centre, surrounded by hundreds of guests, Lam whispered to her grandmother once the waiters whisked off the silver domes covering the bowls and set them down on the table. “I don’t want to eat shark’s fin soup anymore,” she confided. “Can you eat it for me?”
Her grandmother was unrelenting. “You silly girl,” she lectured Lam. “This is such a good shark’s fin soup we have. It’s already made. People will think you’re ungrateful.”
Lam gave in that day. But now that she’s in her twenties, she, along with several of her friends, no longer eats shark’s fin soup. The most environmentally conscious students at the University of Hong Kong now manage to reserve one or two “green tables” at their weddings where shark’s fin soup isn’t served: in fact, the university itself has adopted an anti-shark’s-fin-soup policy. Tsui Lap Chee, the university’s vice-chancellor, no longer lets professors or administrative officials expense shark’s fin soup on their business meals. (Some university employees still try to skirt the rules, despite the vice-chancellor’s best efforts.)
The attempt to make shark’s fin soup socially unacceptable has moved in fits and starts. In March 2008, Delta Air Lines served “braised shark’s fin soup with cucumber and fish maw” at its welcoming dinner celebrating the carrier’s inaugural nonstop flight between Atlanta and Shanghai.4 Other U.S. companies, however, have reversed course when it comes to serving the dish. When Disneyland opened for business in Hong Kong in 2005, the company declared it would serve shark’s fin soup to its customers. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society launched an all-out PR offensive against Disney, distributing T-shirts that depicted Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck holding knives over sharks that had been finned. At first, Hong Kong Disneyland defended the practice, saying the theme park was simply trying to respect Chinese cultural values and would not use fins from the three internationally protected sharks—basking, whale, and great white—in their soup. But ultimately Disneyland backed down and took the dish off the menu. Irene Chan, Hong Kong Disneyland’s vice president for public affairs, declared in the summer of 2005, “After careful consideration and a thorough review process, we were not able to identify an environmentally sustainable fishing source, leaving us no alternative except to remove shark’s fin soup from our wedding banquet menu.” Another Hong Kong theme park has gone further, turning its refusal to sell shark’s fin soup into a marketing ploy. James Fin H20 is one of the main theme characters at Ocean Park, which provides both amusement rides and a marine conservation message for its customers. And more than fifty companies and institutions operating in Hong Kong have now signed the World Wildlife Fund’s pledge to neither buy nor sell the soup as part of their corporate activities, a coalition that includes Swiss Re and the University of Hong Kong as well as Pure Yoga and Mandarin Orange clothing.
A parade of Chinese celebrities have decried shark’s fin soup, including Yao Ming, the NBA star who once played for the Shanghai Sharks, and the pop music idol Liu Huan, who have pledged not to eat it.5 The Singapore Chefs Association took the dish off the menu for its 2009 annual dinner, a major break with tradition.6 And in some Asian cultures the delicacy has come to symbolize the excesses of the idle rich: Japan’s Princess Masako, married to Crown Prince Naruhito, came under fire after a series of lavish meals, including “shark fin soup at a top Chinese restaurant.”7
Hong Kong restaurateurs know local popular sentiment about sharks is shifting, but they’re not worried. While shark’s fin soup consumption is waning in Hong Kong, Norman Ho explains, this decline is more than outpaced by the surging demand from mainland China. “China is at the beginning of the cycle,” he explains. “In China the market for shark fin is growing as they are getting more and more rich.”
There was a time when shark’s fin soup was frowned upon in China: when Mao Tse-tung held power, such status symbols were seen as conveying undesirable class distinctions. Now that’s the entire point. Poon Kuen Fai, a third-generation dried-seafood importer, sees this as part of a generational and economic shift. Poon, who was educated abroad and goes by the name Richard, runs one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious stores in Sheung Wan, On Kee Dry Seafood. The store boasts a dizzying number of Chinese delicacies, including abalone, sea cucumber, and fish swim bladders, and its shark section is equally impressive: frozen shark with cartilage, dried fins, and instant shark’s fin soup with bamboo fungi or chicken, your choice. Hong Kong’s older generation viewed making shark’s fin soup as an integral part of family rituals, but this allure has faded over time, and customers are only comfortable purchasing premade versions at this point.
“For my grandfather’s and father’s generation, shark’s fin soup was quite popular,” Poon explains as we sit in his executive office, a small suite on the second floor of his building that is sheltered from the frenetic movement of employees running back and forth to serve the flood of customers. “The younger generation doesn’t know how to make the soup.”
As a result, Poon explains, in Hong Kong people only order or prepare shark’s fin soup for weddings or to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Rather than confine themselves to that market, shark fin sellers are marketing their product to suit mainland Chinese consumers. Some are even thinking of how “to farm the shark,” he adds, following the model of salmon and shrimp farms. “The importance is how to continue the business,” Poon says.
While shark farming seems improbable, given that these fish don’t naturally congregate, there’s no question that Hong Kong street vendors see mainland China as their customer base. Ming Li Hang has spent forty-five years of his life selling shark fins: on the afternoon that I pass by, he is patiently trimming fins as he sits on the street in front of his store. Ming has no interest in speaking to me, since he is hard at work. But his sister-in-law, a chatty woman who goes by the Anglicized name of Betty Cheung, is more than happy to discuss the details of their trade. The Hong Kong market is almost irrelevant to the family business. As Cheung observes, “In Hong Kong, nobody cooks at home.” Instead, she estimates, they sell 80 percent of their fins to China (ironically, this entails having the fins undergo the circuitous route of traveling from Hong Kong to mainland China, back to Hong Kong, and then back to mainland China, but no one seems bothered by this) and 20 percent to a single Chinese restaurant in Canada. Chinese hotel operators sometimes come directly to the store to buy fins, Cheung says, along with tourists “coming down from mainland China to buy fins because the people in China are rich now.” Business has never been better.
“We’re selling more; the price is higher than before,” Cheung says, smiling. While there are fewer fins available now, Cheung and most of the other shark fin vendors don’t see this as a problem. “If you’ve got less, it’s more expensive. People will still buy it.”
This is one of the sad ironies of fishing economics: scarcity only accelerates the animals’ demise. As a species becomes overexploited, the price shoots up, and the most rational thing to do is to continue fishing it in order to collect it before someone else does. The race only ends when the species in question becomes so scarce it’s no longer worth pursuing, and at that point it’s doomed. This is especially true when it comes to sharks because they—by definition—connote status, so an elevated price is not a barrier to sales.
Lin Ying Jui, another friendly shark fin seller in Sai Ying Poon, calls the shark fins in her shop “a luxury product,” just like the swift birds’ nests she and her husband sell. “If you’re rich enough, you can afford it, if not, so be it,” Lin says, adding that if sharks disappear from the sea altogether, “There’s nothing we can do about it. We have to accept it.”
Shark fin dealers feel embattled nowadays, and they point fingers at an array of people they see as the most hypocritical players in the conservation debate: Europeans who eat shark as part of their fish-and-chips habit, self-righteous Americans, and whiny environmentalists. Lim points out that Mexicans like to eat shark meat, for example, but no one blames Mexicans for the worldwide decline of sharks. And on a certain level, the Europeans bear responsibility as shark consumers and shark hunters.
Europeans like eating shark both as an elegant entrée and as the more plebeian offering of fish and chips; while you might not see the words “spiny dogfish” on a menu, it might be there nonetheless. According to the environmental group TRAFFIC, it will just be labeled “rock salmon” in Britain, saumonette in France, or Schillerlocke and Seeaal in Germany instead.8 As Europeans have sought out the nearby fish that could meet their demand, the northeast Atlantic spurdog population—a European name for spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias—has dropped by 95 percent. Quite simply, they took as many sharks as they could off their shores until there weren’t any left to catch, and then they began to look elsewhere. At this point the German fishing fleet catches 750 tons of shark annually, but the country imports another 14,000 tons each year to satisfy domestic demand. The German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection tested an array of shark meat in February 2008 and reported that more than a fourth of the samples contained concentrations of the neurotoxin methyl mercury that violated both European and American health guidelines, but this has not hurt sales there.
But these nuances are lost on the traders’ critics, Giam says. From activists to young people who are unwilling to work, he chimes in, “the whole world has been blaming the shark fins.”
Yip, a man in his late sixties who heads the Dry Marine Product Trading Company, talks about his industry the same way an American farmer or fisherman might, as if he’s the last generation who’s willing to stick it out for the sake of the family business.
“The business is going down,” Yip complains. “Nowadays, young people are not willing to work in this industry. Especially for the younger generation, they don’t want to become fishermen. They want a more comfortable job. The smart guys, the professional guys, they run away from the business. Many young people are going out to work, maybe in IT, and make more money.”
“Nobody wants to teach their son to do this business,” Lim chimes in. “Nobody wants to get up at 6:30 in the morning to do work.”
Nonetheless, these men are enormously invested in seeing their line of business survive. In Yip’s eyes, Westerners simply fail to grasp the role shark’s fin soup plays in Chinese culture. At the start of the interview, Yip spoke only in Cantonese, but as he and the other shark fin traders begin to question my assistants’ translation skills, Yip decides to switch into English. “It’s a misunderstanding of a Hong Kong tradition,” he says. “They are very eco, Americans. Sometimes there’s self-exaggerating Americans. I don’t like them, strictly to the point.”
At the same time, Yip admits he doesn’t often eat shark’s fin soup because “it’s complicated to cook. My wife says, ‘Don’t bring home shark fin for me. I don’t want to make it for you.’ ”
Just as shark fin traders are encountering resistance in their own kitchens, they recognize their product no longer has the same public appeal in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong Disneyland decided to banish shark’s fin soup from its menu, Lim says, it was “a popular move.” But this sort of activism has tarred shark fin traders as undesirable, he adds: “We are not so bad people. We want people to know the truth … We don’t want sharks to disappear in the world. That would be bad.”
Lim and his colleagues are determined to get the word out that they oppose finning, the practice where fishermen slice off a shark’s fins and throw its body overboard in order to maximize profit and minimize the amount of cargo they have to haul back to shore. Lim tries to conjure up an improbable image to make his argument.
“Put a shark on the table and try to get a fin while it is alive,” he says, getting visibly animated. “It is very difficult to get a fin from a live animal. Try it at home.”
Lim is right, of course: chopping off a live shark’s fin would pose a challenge to even the most skilled sushi chef. But his assertion—that shark finning cannot happen because it would be nearly impossible to pull off—is false, since fishermen only fin sharks once the fish are no longer alive. By the time fishing vessels haul their catch on board, most of the sharks are dead, and if they’re not dead, the crew proceeds to kill them.
For something that’s worth a lot of money, shark fins don’t have the elaborate pricing system of other commodities, such as coffee or diamonds. Every time I press shark fin dealers about how they value their product, they’re fairly vague, and it’s not that they’re being deliberately evasive. Several dealers say they can’t be entirely sure where the fins they sell come from; Lim says when it comes to setting a price, it depends on “how big or small, that’s all,” along with the question of supply and demand. “Many times we don’t know where they come from. They can come from one country and be reexported to another country.” In the free-flowing Hong Kong market, the origins of any single batch of fins quickly become murky.
The shark fin trade remains an old-school business for the most part, with few of the modern practices that have come to define other commercial ventures in Hong Kong. All of the men I’m sitting with at this conference table have devoted their entire lives to dried seafood. Mak—the one they call “the godfather”—started work at seventeen and borrowed money from his relatives to operate his own stall, a stall he still runs today. These are men who survived the economic downturn that followed the 1997 handover to China, and they want to keep going until they retire.
Maybe that’s why Lim is so intense about defending the honor of what he calls “a 170-year-old industry. We are one of Hong Kong’s small businesses. We don’t want to spoil the name of Hong Kong.” He has little patience for my questions about the rules governing the auctions he runs—when I ask why a buyer has sixty days to hand over the money he’s bid on one of the shark fin lots, Lim replies, “I would have to ask about 170 years ago, why did you do this system? All this is a business game.”
Lim says fin traders have an overarching goal at this point: “We are trying to find somebody to save the shark.” While that seems improbable, given that their entire business is dependent on killing sharks, toward the end of our last conversation he points out that at the end of the day, the market for shark fins is a world market. “This is not the only place,” he tells me. “The whole world would have to think about this.”
Sarah Fowler is the kind of person who has to think about what Lim is saying. Co-chair of the Shark Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Fowler is—more than most scientists—responsible for gauging whether sharks are in trouble. Each year the IUCN Shark Specialist Group tallies up how shark populations are doing and assigns them to categories that describe their particular predicament (critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and so on): right now, as many as one-third of all species are threatened with extinction. Like that of many international bureaucratic organizations, the Shark Specialist Group’s membership boasts a sprawling mix of personalities from a range of different backgrounds, and it takes tremendous diplomatic skills to keep it functioning. That is why, in part, Fowler invited Lim to join her organization a few years ago.
A number of factors prompted the move. It’s better to have your opponents inside the fold than outside, she reasons, and Lim and his colleagues can offer conservationists information they cannot obtain from anyone else.
“I don’t believe we can truly understand what the fisheries are until we understand what the trade is,” Fowler says. We’re sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Morro Bay, California, during a break in an annual meeting of some of the world’s most elite marine biologists, far away from the Hong Kong streets that we’ve both traversed in search of shark fin traders. When Lim and Giam told me that they had reached out to Fowler several years ago on the issue of shark finning, I wasn’t quite sure whether to believe them. But they were telling the truth, and Fowler sees their collaboration as a way of deciphering the often impenetrable world of fin trading. “We have a huge amount to learn, which they can teach us.”
Rather than shunning the Hong Kong traders, Fowler hopes to win them over with the argument that they, in the words of Lim, could be the “somebody to save the shark.”
“I do not believe it’s in their interest, any more than it’s in the interest of conservationists, to have their supply dry up,” she argues.
Fowler is trying to win fin traders over with a straightforward economic argument: if they scale back on fishing sharks, they could make shark’s fin soup into a rare treat, and guarantee their business will not die when they do. But while shark’s fin soup has symbolized wealth and influence for centuries, it appears to be on the verge of going down-market. According to a report by the conservation group WildAid, this legendary dish has become so commonplace that some Singapore restaurants offer all-you-can-eat shark fin buffets for $8.99, and Japanese stores are stocked with shark’s fin cookies, bread, and cat food. It’s become just another product, no different from the tiny cameras and sleek eyeglass frames that you can get for cut-rate prices at the stores lining Hong Kong’s Times Square. That means it now poses an even greater threat to sharks, since it will take an increasingly large supply to meet this demand.
“If it was my family business,” Fowler says drily, “I would be worried.”
Lim and his colleagues have devised a short-term plan to address their business concerns: press as hard as possible to expand the shark fin market in mainland China. The elegant coastal city of Shanghai—with its gleaming high-rise buildings, booming financial market, and sizable group of nouveau riche—has become a key target for what residents call yue cai, or Hong Kong food. In June 2010 Lim made a pilgrimage there to make his sales pitch to Shanghai’s Department of Wildlife Conservation officials and Xu Hongfa, who leads the TRAFFIC wildlife trade program based at WWF China. Touting the quality of Hong Kong’s dried seafood, Lim sketched out a vision of Shanghai as the next big shark fin market. And Lim has some reason to hope he can make inroads here, since the number of small shops selling fins have started to proliferate in Shanghai, even on the edges of the university campus where Xu Hongfa teaches. “Demand is high,” says Xu, who opposes the shark fin trade but adds the lack of international limits on shark fishing makes regulation nearly impossible in China.
Xing Ping, a seafood and dried goods market in Shanghai’s wealthy Xu Hui district, offers a glimpse into the city’s growing shark fin trade. Only a handful of shops explicitly display the product; for the most part potential buyers have to offer money first and describe what sort of fins they’d like to purchase before a shopkeeper will bring any out. But wedged in between offerings such as dried red pepper, black fungus, and an array of noodles, the shark fins are there, costing anywhere from the equivalent of $100 to $200 for half a kilo. Lin Mei Yu, whose family has run the market’s largest shark fin market since the start of the twenty-first century, is the rare exception, displaying more than a dozen bags of shark fins in her glass-paneled shop. All of her fins come from Hong Kong, and the vast majority of them are headed for the city’s hotels, where chefs will prepare them for their highest-paying customers. In Shanghai, the future of shark fin trading looks bright.
And this demand for shark fins, moreover, is actually fueling the demand for shark meat as far away as Africa. Mozambicans have not traditionally consumed sharks. But as they’ve begun finning off their southern coast over the past decade to satisfy Asian suppliers, a local business in shark meat has boomed. Alice Costa, marine program coordinator for the WWF Mozambique Country Office, says coastal residents in her country now see the flesh of everything from whale sharks to snaggletooth sharks as akin to beef. “Now the Mozambicans are changing their culture,” Costa explains. “They’re going for the shark meat instead of the fish.” It becomes a feedback loop, where everyone along the supply chain is now invested in catching sharks.
But if Asian shark fin traders want a glimpse at the future, they might want to look at what has happened in the United States, where the demand for shark products has already peaked and crashed. Ironically, several Americans spent years trying to commodify an animal that was widely hated, only to see the entire business collapse.
It took years to convince Americans that sharks were worth anything at all. In 1928, O. W. Barrett, the agricultural director of the Department of Agriculture and Labor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, wrote a report titled “Shark Fishing in the West Indies.” Aimed at the U.S. audience, it detailed an array of potential uses for the sharks swimming within reach of America’s shores. Each product made from “that much hated denizen of the deep” had promise, Barrett argued. Sharkskin leather might hold the widest appeal—“Of beautiful leathers there is no end, but none better, it seems, than shagreen,” he wrote—but dried shark fillets “are a great boon to the housewife who never, even under the most favorable circumstances, likes the work of ‘dressing’ a fish herself.” Shark meat discards could serve as fertilizer, he enthused, while shark teeth had a place in the commercial market as well. “By the way, mounted on pieces of turtle shell, these shark teeth make excellent watch-fobs; their indescribable shape, brilliant white color, and serrate, curved edges make very attractive ornaments.” Barrett’s marketing plan had a hint of revenge as well, since his basic premise was that there was ample justification for killing them:
We have been hating sharks on general principles for centuries, and in some ways they have deserved it; but now it is high time that they should pay up. There are no more interesting animals in the world, and the ways and means of turning them into cash constitute one of the most fascinating of our modern industries.9
Shortly after Barrett wrote his shark-killing manifesto, shark medicinal products began to take off. In the 1930s and 1940s, merchants began selling shark-liver oil as both a lubricant and a source of vitamin A. When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, the United States could no longer get access to cod-liver oil. That led to a spike in shark fishing off the Pacific coast, where fishermen targeted soupfin sharks. The price of soupfins rocketed up from $40 to $1,500 per ton, and the Borden Company even started a shark division to obtain the vitamin A it needed for its milk.10 This fishing frenzy caused the soupfin shark population to collapse: only recently have scientists concluded the species has largely recovered. Manufacturers figured out a way to create a synthetic substitute for vitamin A, eliminating the need for shark-liver oil. Today merchants have found a different medicinal use for sharks: they use chondroitin, which comes from shark cartilage and usually takes a powdered form, to ease arthritis or help craft artificial skin for burn victims. But this market doesn’t reach quite the same scale as the vitamin A boomlet in the mid-twentieth century.
In one of the most recent marketing ploys, beauty companies have touted the benefits of using shark products to preserve women’s youthful appearance. In the summer of 2007 the Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group Oceana launched a public relations campaign aimed at halting the sale of shark squalene, an organic compound found in the animals’ livers. It’s an odd ingredient to be touting in the first place: squalene and squalane, a product derived from squalene, are found in high concentrations in the livers of deepwater sharks, which they use to regulate their buoyancy. Beauty companies advertise it as a natural, “oil-free” moisturizer that enhances everything from anti-aging creams to lip gloss.
Oceana’s chief scientist, Michael Hirshfield, and his colleagues discovered the marketing of squalene by accident. A consumer sent them an e-mail asking about the product after receiving a pitch from a doctor based in West Virginia. After doing some digging, they found out a company—ironically, named Oceana—was selling it as a skin enhancer in the Vermont Country Store, a venerable and quirky institution better known for selling inexpensive dresses for old ladies and socks aimed at mitigating athlete’s foot. The New England store was not alone: popular cosmetic brands such as Pond’s and Dove also use the compound for their products.
While Pond’s didn’t exactly shout about its shark-liver oil, the Vermont Country Store touted its $29.95 bottle of the company’s BioMarine Topical Deep Water Squalane with all the enthusiasm of 1950s admen. “Japanese women are admired the world around for their complexions as smooth as porcelain,” the copy read, juxtaposed with an image of a clear two-ounce bottle with a smiling blue shark atop it. “What’s their secret? 100 percent natural squalane, derived from the livers of deep-water sharks and used in some of the most elusive and effective beauty formulas for over 100 years. Because squalane also occurs naturally in humans, our skin can quickly and completely absorb this fragrance-free oil, making it extremely effective in reducing lines and moisturizing dry skin.”
Oceana—the environmental group, not the shark-peddling firm—is the sort of organization that specializes in launching public advocacy campaigns with a specific policy goal: in one of their most successful campaigns, they embarrassed several major cruise lines into treating their sewage rather than dumping it, untreated, into the open ocean. Their lobbying is aimed mainly at influencing the public’s perception of a given company: in the case of squalene, they wrote a series of open letters suggesting that major cosmetic companies should be ashamed of using the product. “Although companies are selling deep-sea shark products as ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ and ‘wild’—all great marketing words—what they’re doing is the same as peddling endangered rhinoceros horn or elephant ivory,” Hirshfield says, scoffing.
Within a matter of months, the companies backed down in the face of the activists’ campaign and jettisoned squalene. It wasn’t too hard a sell: botanical sources such as rice bran, wheat germ, amaranth seeds, and olives can also yield squalene, and the fact that deepwater sharks are considered among the most vulnerable sharks around made the practice particularly distasteful. By January 2008 the Vermont Country Store took BioMarine Topical Deep Water Squalane off its shelves, and Unilever, the London-based manufacturer that produces Pond’s and Dove, announced it would use a plant-based version of squalene instead. And exactly a year later Dr. Susan Lark, a major supplier of squalene-based cosmetic products, agreed to stop using the ingredient after receiving complaints from fifteen thousand members of the environmental group Oceana.
In this age of corporate responsibility, after all, some beauty manufacturers don’t want to be responsible for driving a species to the brink of extinction. “Unilever is committed to running its business on a sustainable basis and we have a policy of not using products from species that are either in danger or in decline,” wrote Gavin Neath, Unilever’s senior vice president for global corporate responsibility, to the executive director for Oceana Europe, Xavier Pastor, in a December 10, 2007, letter. “As such I can confirm we have identified, and started to take steps to remove from our products, any squalene with animal origins and will replace it with plant based versions (including the Pond’s brand that you mention in your letter).” That allowed Oceana—the ocean advocacy group—to declare victory.
The PR battle over squalene represents just the latest debate over claims that shark products can stave off aging and disease. For years, health-food stores have touted shark cartilage as a way to halt cancer, selling it in the form of powder-containing pills. The theory behind the product is that shark cartilage contains a substance that inhibits the growth of blood vessels—angiogenesis—that help tumors expand: if the vessels stop developing, so will the tumors. These products actually stem from what had been legitimate scientific research in the 1970s, when Judah Folkman, chief of surgery at Children’s Hospital Boston, conducted tests using animal cartilage to see if it had angiogenic properties. The initial research—on rabbits—was promising, and studies later conducted by a former student of Folkman’s and a new collaborator raised the possibility of inhibiting tumors by implanting shark cartilage pellets. While some studies of angiogenesis continue to this day, scientists were unable to reproduce these results with humans, so credible researchers gave up on the idea of using shark cartilage to cure cancer.
Still, a biochemist named I. William Lane seized upon these findings and co-authored a book in 1992 titled Sharks Don’t Get Cancer: How Shark Cartilage Could Save Your Life. Lane got a major shot of publicity in 1993 from a segment by the newsmagazine 60 Minutes; in 1996 he received a patent to market shark cartilage pills and co-wrote a second book titled Sharks Still Don’t Get Cancer. Later, he founded a company called LaneLabs USA, headed by his son Andrew, and started selling a product called BeneFin that he claimed would help fight cancer.
In September 1997 the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to LaneLabs stating that BeneFin—along with two of the company’s other products that claimed to treat skin cancer and AIDS—violated the law because LaneLabs was marketing it as a drug rather than as a dietary supplement. When the company ignored the letter, FDA officials sued in 1999 to halt the sale of BeneFin and the two other products altogether.
It took five years, but on July 13, 2004, William G. Bassler, a federal judge in New Jersey, ruled the products amounted to unapproved new drugs. He issued a permanent injunction against their sale and ordered LaneLabs to pay restitution to anyone who purchased BeneFin and the two other supposed cures since September 22, 1999. The FDA’s acting commissioner at the time, Lester M. Crawford, welcomed the decision, saying it sent “a strong signal that the promotion and sale of unapproved drug products, especially for the treatment of cancer and other serious diseases, will not be tolerated.”
Since that legal decision, most of the American medical establishment has done its best to debunk shark cartilage treatments as a cancer cure-all. The National Cancer Institute reviewed the findings from the experiment trial Lane and his colleagues conducted in Cuba and called them “incomplete and unimpressive.” Gary Ostrander, a research dean at Johns Hopkins University, investigated the claim that sharks are immune to cancer by sifting through the National Cancer Institute’s Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals and found forty instances where sharks and their closest relatives, skates and rays, experienced benign and malignant tumors.11 Lane concedes this point in his second book, though he dismisses it as immaterial, writing, “While ALMOST No Sharks Get Cancer might have been a bit more accurate, it would have been a rotten title.”
In the most telling rebuke, the Mayo Clinic oncologist Charles L. Loprinzi and scientists in the North Central Cancer Treatment Group designed and conducted a rigorous test of whether shark cartilage improves the health of patients with breast and colorectal cancer. The study—a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial—showed the patients taking shark cartilage enjoyed neither an improvement in their condition nor a significant boost in their quality of life. In some cases, the patients taking the pills saw their quality of life deteriorate. The authors wrote in the July 1, 2005, issue of Cancer, the American Cancer Society’s peer-reviewed journal, “Shark cartilage did not demonstrate any efficacy in patients with advanced breast or colorectal cancers.”
While sharks possess a range of fascinating properties, they cannot stave off human mortality or aging. To suggest otherwise merely perpetuates the sorts of myths that have surrounded this fish for centuries.
Some U.S. fishermen used to make careers out of satisfying Americans’ demand for shark, but the market they used to cater to has virtually disappeared. No career better exemplifies this arc than that of Eric Sander, a Daytona Beach, Florida, fisherman who has been intrigued by sharks since he was a little boy. A graduate of the University of South Florida with a natural sciences degree, he started working as a mate on a charter boat out of Daytona in the early 1980s. During the wintertime the charter-boat operations switched to commercial fishing in order to make up for the lull in tourism. They usually focused on bringing in snapper, grouper, and king mackerel, the sorts of fish that commanded the highest market prices. The charter boats would unload their catches at the end of the day on a dock near a few local restaurants, and on the rare occasions when they had snagged a shark by mistake, Sander remembers, it would draw a crowd. “You could drop all the amberjack and mackerel you want; if you dropped a big shark on the dock, everybody came down to your boat.” Still, it was just for show: nobody was interested in buying the sandbar or blacktip shark the charter-boat operators were plunking down upon their return.
In 1983, Sander and his brother decided to strike out on their own and start commercial fishing full-time. They bought their own thirty-two-foot boat, christened it Jawsome, and headed out to make a living. They began setting longlines for king mackerel and other species and, on occasion, found themselves pulling up sharks. At the same time, federal fisheries managers were trying to ease up the pressure on groupers, and they started putting out literature on how sharks could appeal to restaurants that were seeking to broaden their menu offerings. Sander and his brother went to work outfitting the Jawsome for the task.
“We kind of jerry-rigged a longline system, and, lo and behold, we could sell sharks,” Sander recalls, adding they relied on a hand crank to pull up the line. “In 1984 we went full-time shark fishing. We had tremendous success.”
In the first year, the two fishermen brought in fifty thousand pounds of shark. “Everybody was watching us,” he says. And within a matter of months, other fishing operations started imitating them. A fleet blossomed in Daytona Beach, supplying a steady local market with meat and fins. While selling the meat covered the fishermen’s operating costs, the fins represented pure profit.
“It wouldn’t have been as attractive if that money for the fins wasn’t there. That was bonus money, gravy money,” Sander relates. The price of fins kept going up, from $4 a pound to $9, to $10 and $12, and beyond. The shark fin dealers would gather on the dock, and the fishermen would have their choice of buyers.
By the late 1990s, however, the shark catches began to dwindle, and Sander noticed. He thought it might be time to go “up the hill,” or start working onshore. After a Florida marine patrol officer saw him sorting fins on the dock, enforcement officers hired Sander as a consultant to nab illegal shark traders. He now works full-time for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as regional coordinator for its Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey, asking anglers dockside what they’ve been catching.
Sander knows many shark populations have been declining off the Atlantic coast: he’s seen it himself, and he emphasizes, “They’re not just another commodity. They serve an important function in the ocean.” But even though he regularly helps enforcement officers spot illegally caught sharks, he doesn’t see himself as someone on a mission to save the animal he once hunted. Sander still sees it as a fish that might as well be on the menu of Daytona Beach restaurants.
For Sander, working enforcement is just another job, not some sort of moral mission. “I’m not really concerned with it. I’m out of the industry; I have been since 1998,” he offers. “I’m not looking to make things right and restore it back to the level that it’s been before.”
From a practical perspective, it would be nearly impossible to bring the American shark fishery back to pre-exploitation levels. At this point, shark products have become relegated to a niche market, which provides enough of a commercial incentive to keep a relatively low level of fishing active off U.S. shores. There are shark teeth in South Carolina road stop knickknack stores, mako shark on the list of regular menu offerings at Atlantic Seafood Company in an Atlanta strip mall. They remain a banal relic, an allusion to an ancient seafaring lifestyle that is rapidly disappearing. As the sharks disappear, so does our connection to the sea.
In Kesennuma City in Japan, one entrepreneur has spent the last half century seeking a middle way when it comes to the shark trade. Kesennuma is a relatively small port in a country that defines itself as a seafaring nation: fewer than seventy thousand people live there, and the city’s fish market lands close to $30 million worth of fish a year. But its residents have taken full advantage of the region’s fertile fishing grounds—Japanese call its jagged coastline the Rias Coast, referring to its sawtooth-like shape, and it straddles two separate bays—for centuries. And the Pacific coast’s riches continue to define the city’s identity and economy.
Three hundred years ago Kesennuma fishermen ventured out in small wooden boats to catch sharks, a time-consuming and dangerous process that helped sustain the local population. Now the city is a lively port where fishing and tourism rank as the biggest moneymakers. As fishing vessels became more mechanized and sophisticated, area fishermen started targeting more lucrative species, such as tuna and Pacific saury, rather than focusing on sharks. But using sharp hooks attached to long lines of rope, they caught plenty of sharks anyway. And that gave Kasumasa Murata a major business opportunity.
Kasumasa Murata grew up far from here in western Japan, on Kyushu Island. But more than fifty years ago he married his wife, Yoneko, a Kesennuma native, and moved to her hometown. At the time Murata came here, the Japanese government was happy to help finance small industrial ventures in the fishing sector, and he decided the other merchants in Kesennuma were missing a possible source of income when they merely sliced off the fins from the sharks piling up on the city’s dock and threw the rest away. “Shark fin in Kesennuma has been world famous, but other parts of the body have not been utilized very well,” he says, sipping cold buckwheat tea in his fish market office. While fishermen in other countries still hack off the fin and throw the shark’s body overboard, he adds, “that’s not our style. I don’t think that’s good for the natural resource. Once we catch a shark, we utilize every part of the body.”
Murata is not exaggerating. Since 1959 he has built up a small but efficient processing operation, a few minutes’ drive from the port where the sharks come in each morning. The aging entrepreneur purchases half of all the fish that arrive at the dock all day, including most of the sharks: blue, mako, and salmon are the ones that swim off the coast here. A handful of workers immediately slice off the sharks’ fins, which are still worth close to ten times as much as the rest of their bodies, before the remaining flesh is carted off to Murata’s processing plant. The long, tubular bodies are placed in a watery holding pond for roughly six hours, to leach out the ammonia that dominates a shark’s body once it’s been killed.
The tiny factory Murata runs resembles a sausage-making plant more than anything else, with a touch of the assembly-line feel of an automobile factory. Each of the sharks goes through the identical process. A couple of employees skin them and place these skins into thirty-three-pound containers to be frozen, so they can be shipped to a separate facility and made into leather. Then they take out their cartilage spines, tossing them into a large, rectangular plastic bucket that is destined for yet another plant, where its contents can be dried and turned into a medicinal powder. The remaining shark meat is fed through multiple conveyers so it can be washed, sliced, and turned into light pink tubular noodles destined for a massive mixing bowl. (“It’s pure stainless steel,” Murata notes with pride as he takes me on a tour of his plant, pointing to the array of gleaming machines. “It is the best in Japan.”) As the shark meat swirls around in the mixer, Murata’s employees add the specific seasonings that his customers request. Some want sugar, others salt, and a few want some of each. Finally, workers smooth the shark paste that has been formed through this process into twenty-two-pound metal trays that they cover in bright blue saran wrap. It’s ready for freezing in one of the building’s cold-storage units, where it will wait until the trucks come each morning to ship it to different customers across Japan.
There is no waste in this efficient enterprise. Even the least-desirable shark meat becomes feed for cows, and the other shark by-products fetch an attractive price. The factory’s main office includes a glassed-in display of shark leather items such as card holders, belts, purses, and pumps, all of which sell in the hundreds of dollars. Murata, who wears a black shark-leather belt himself, boasts that he has shipped the leather (which goes under the name KSP, or Kesennuma Shark Products) to as far away as Hermès in Paris. He emphasizes that by maximizing what he gets out of each shark, he’s supporting his community and avoiding an ecological disaster at the same time. “Without taking care of the natural resource, we cannot survive, and we cannot make the town prosperous.”
It’s unclear how sustainable this sort of fishing is: while the central government ordered the town to slash its eighty-boat fishing fleet by 25 percent in the spring of 2008, and Murata says the fishermen take pains to avoid areas where they know juvenile sharks swim, that is likely not enough to ensure the sharks here survive. Mako sharks are already vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and scientists believe it’s important to protect older, more fecund females that will produce more offspring than younger females.
While there are other shark processors in town, Murata—who also heads the Kesennuma fish market cooperative—is comfortable with his position of influence here. He bustles around his plant with cheerful authority and speaks glowingly of the financial model that helped propel Japan to global economic prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. He is nearing retirement but has two sons working in the business, and is optimistic about shark fishing’s future here.
Though tuna brings in roughly 30 percent more revenue than shark in Kesennuma, the animal continues to help define the city and its food culture. The local shark museum, located right next to the fish market, includes examples of small, tame sharks visitors can pet as well as a battered diving cage they can enter. The city’s restaurants advertise shark’s fin sushi and shark sashimi on their menus as local delicacies, something that’s rarely seen in other cities. Kesennuma was the first Japanese city to join the Slow Food movement, and the Miyagi Prefecture government has started touting shark as an integral part of the global push to eat locally. Its promotional literature, complete with the inevitable cartoon figures, highlights shark’s nutritional virtues. “Rich in collagen and 6 times as much DHA as tuna!” the pamphlet shouts, referring to docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. The handout provides examples of the many shark preparations visitors and residents alike can savor, including shark burgers and shark stew. But even with the local government’s help, businessmen like Murata face a major challenge at the moment. The Japanese, proud members of a marine nation, are eating less fish.
Yutaka Aoki, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Fishery Division within its Economic Affairs Bureau, flips through the government document before him. His eyes scanning bar graph after bar graph, he finally finds what he wants to show me. “Here it is,” he declares, pointing to a chart of how Japanese protein consumption has evolved over time. For hundreds of years fish has occupied a central place in the country’s diet, but cheap meat imports have begun to change that. In 2007, for the first time since the government has begun keeping statistics about citizens’ daily eating habits, people reported eating an equal amount of fish and meat. A year later meat had edged out fish, by a tenth of a pound on a daily basis.
“The fishery agency is a little concerned about the change in lifestyle,” Aoki admits. “Small children prefer meat.” The Japanese government sees this transition to a more meat-based diet as a challenge on several fronts. It represents an assault on traditional culture. It is helping fuel a weight gain among the nation’s youth. And it threatens what Aoki calls the nation’s “food security.” Few nations rival Japan for its ability to take fish out of the sea, but when it comes to supplying beef, pork, and chicken, most of it comes from countries such as the United States and Australia. Miyagi Prefecture is not the only institution to launch a fish-related public relations campaign; the central government has launched a drive to convince people that fish eating is key. But it may not work fast enough to help the fish-paste industry that Kasumasa Murata supplies.
Just like shark fishing in Kesennuma, Japanese fish paste has a long and storied history. Back in A.D. 1115, a minister for the emperor who hailed from the Fujiwara clan built a large house and held a party to celebrate his new home. According to the menu, he served a steamed loaf of fish paste cut into slices. Since it was wrapped around a piece of bamboo and took on the shape of the ear of a bulrush, or kama, it became known as kamaboko.12 With the minister’s culinary act, fish paste joined the ranks of traditional Japanese cuisine. To this day, the Japanese emperor and empress serve red and white kamaboko at official banquets.
But globalization, along with the depletion of fish stocks, has transformed Japanese fish paste over the years. Years ago a dozen regions across the country had their own distinctive form of fish paste, featuring different forms and species of fish. The rural Aomori Prefecture made chikuwa, a tube of paste hollowed out in the center lying on a wooden board. They made it out of the small dogfish sharks they caught, but their catch plummeted in the mid-1950s (most likely because dogfish mature so late and have a long gestation period for their pups). At first, Aomori fishermen switched to catching dogfish sharks off Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. But that population dipped, and now they import many of the key ingredients from British Columbia.
A classic fish cake, hanpen, has also changed with time. It acquired its name not from its shape but from the chef who created it, Hanpei.13 During the Edo period (which began in 1603), residents of what later became Tokyo caught spotted sharks in Edo Bay and made them into this pillowy white fish cake. No one fishes anymore in what is now called Tokyo Bay, and much of the fish in hanpen comes from pollack caught in Hokkaido or elsewhere.
Shigeo Sugie, who heads the fish-paste cooperative at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, spends much of his time thinking about the future of fish paste. (Like Murata, he wears two hats: he is, according to his formal business card, president and “food meister” of Neo Foods Company, a fish-paste producer.) Sugie, with his jet-black hair and the ready smile of a door-to-door salesman, looks as if he would fit better into 1950s America than modern-day Japan. But he is firmly entrenched in one of the most impressive global-trading operations: his office abuts the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, a bustling expanse with twenty-five hundred mechanized trolleys zipping around 760 stalls. There are five wholesalers dealing with shark meat paste, though this pales in comparison with the three hundred tuna wholesalers who operate in Tsukiji every day. Still, these men, along with other fish-paste sellers, are Sugie’s constituency, and he’s doing his best to represent them.
The problem, according to Sugie, is the vast array of food choices Japanese consumers now have. Like Aoki, he has watched meat consumption rise in recent years. “Unfortunately, the demand for fish paste in the market has decreased these days,” Sugie allows. “As we have a lot of different types of food available in Japan, fish paste has come to be picked up less.” While Japan’s royal families may still serve it at their dinner parties, most average Japanese families do not.
The loss of fish cake’s regional character isn’t helping, now that fish paste comes from just a handful of sources: frozen pollack supplies half the fish-cake market, while most of the rest comes from fish imported from Southeast Asia. A few stalls in Tsukiji Market still sell hanpen made from shark meat, and Sugie says the viscosity of cartilaginous fish makes all the difference. “It’s like marshmallow,” he murmurs appreciatively as we sample the fish cake at the Tskugon store’s stall. It’s an apt description, because the cake is light and fluffy and features the kind of give that a marshmallow has. Like every other shark dish, it’s the texture that defines it, since the product itself is essentially tasteless. Only after I dip the hanpen into a seafood broth does it gain a noticeable flavor and become a tasty snack.
Sugie is still fighting to reassert the role of shark fish paste in the Japanese marketplace. He and his colleagues sponsored a stall at the annual international seafood show in Tokyo, even commissioning artworks made out of colored fish paste to bolster their cause. And just to be safe, they’ve started holding a memorial service for sharks in early September at a fisherman’s shrine near Tsukiji Market. They sacrifice a spotted shark—the kind fishermen used to scoop out of Edo Bay—and show their gratitude to the Shinto spirits. And on the side, they hope for better sales. “We are not just devouring shark meat and utilizing them. We show our appreciation,” Sugie says.
But in a society that doesn’t see the shark as a major status symbol, the animal doesn’t hold the same culinary appeal. Fish marshmallows, after all, only go so far. Perhaps this is the best hope for shark conservation: when the cultural myths surrounding sharks either fade away or are exploded, the value of shark products plummets. Without this added premium the market can move on to alternatives, whether it’s a different kind of moisturizer, bland fish meat, or gelatinous noodle. This doesn’t mean there’s no societal cost: this sort of shift may cause economic dislocation, and it does mean abandoning traditions that have lasted for centuries in some cases. But it’s important to view this in context: eliminating sharks as a widely traded commodity is not the same thing as eliminating their place in global society or in the world’s economy. In fact, the most effective ways of managing this transition involve redirecting our obsession with sharks into a nonlethal form of commodification. Given current economic and political realities, it may represent the most effective method of ensuring enough sharks exist so our fetishizing them doesn’t wipe them out completely.