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Shark fin soup: The taste of extinction

A pending state bill would prohibit the sale of shark fin and help protect the threatened fish. The ban would affect Chinese Americans disproportionately, but Cantonese culinary culture would easily survive.

August 07, 2011|By Jonathan Gold

I still remember the last time I ate shark's fin, in a grand, now-defunct Monterey Park seafood palace, more than 15 years ago. This restaurant had been proud of its pricey shark's-fin specialties, so much so that it showcased its finest specimens in glass cases, where they had the stark, ghostly presence of museum displays, although by this time some connoisseurs had moved on to the rarer, costlier pleasures of sun-dried abalone farmed in Japan.

Shark's fin, like bird's nest, sea cucumber, fish lip, bamboo pith and other great luxuries of the Chinese table, is prized less for its flavor, which is bland to the point of nonexistence, than for an ethereal, gelatinous texture, achieved through careful drying, precise trimming and a complex preparation method that involves several days. Good shark's fin requires exquisite attention to detail and often involves enormous quantities of chicken and special ham whose sole purpose is to perfume the dish.

It is considered a sign of respect to serve shark's fin to guests, and at a certain kind of Cantonese restaurant a grand dinner is barely conceivable without it or one of its sisters in luxury. It cannot be said that most people look forward to the inevitable bowl of shark's fin soup at a wedding banquet — it takes a skillful chef to make it taste like anything at all — but it is expected, like the double-happiness cakes and the red envelopes.

But there is no double happiness in the future of sharks.

As China's middle class continues to grow, the number of aficionados who can afford the delicacy is expanding. To meet accelerating demand, efficient new fishing boats have found ways to catch more sharks — way more sharks, many millions each year. And since there is a larger market for shark fins than for shark meat, some fisherman resort to "finning," a barbaric and wasteful practice in which the fins are hacked off live sharks, after which the bleeding, crippled animals are tossed back into the sea to drown. There is no sustainable source of shark's fin.

By the time a fin is dried, cleaned and sold at market, it is impossible, short of DNA testing, to determine whether it is from an endangered hammerhead or a merely threatened blue shark; from the U.S. coast, where finning is illegal, or from unregulated international waters. It is impossible, even with DNA testing, to tell whether a particular fin is a byproduct of fishing for shark meat, which is legal (although perhaps it shouldn't be), or from a pirate finning operation.

As important as shark's fin is to traditional Cantonese banquet cuisine, we have reached the point where some shark populations have been reduced to 10% of historical levels, and nearly a third of shark species are approaching the point of extinction.

We need sharks: As top-dog predators, they keep the ocean's ecosystems in balance. And we need to stop eating shark's fin, at least until shark populations have had a chance to recuperate.

Hawaii, Oregon and Washington state have all enacted laws banning the sale, trade and distribution of shark's fin. In California, which controls an estimated 85% of the U.S. trade in the fins, a bill introduced by Assemblymen Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) would prohibit the sale, consumption or trade of shark's fin. The California Shark Protection Act passed the Assembly, 65 to 8, in May but faces obstacles in the state Senate, where Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a member of the Appropriations Committee, which will consider the bill Aug. 15, has said that the ban would unintentionally discriminate against Chinese Americans.

It's true: The ban would affect mostly Chinese Americans, who make up almost all of the market for fins. It could be argued that there should also be bans on bluefin tuna and caviar from Caspian sturgeon, which are even closer to extinction than are most species of sharks, and I'd agree. Chinese Americans are being asked to give up something real, with many years of tradition.

But Chinese culinary culture has proved resilient over the centuries, as able to absorb such foreign ingredients as chiles and squashes as it has been to withstand the absence of sea turtle skirt and bear paw, whose preparation obsessed the earliest Chinese gourmets. There is no third way with shark's fin — we either stop eating it because we choose to preserve the species, or we stop eating it because soon there will be none left to eat.

That soup 15 years ago? Delicious, although I remember the sweetness of the fresh crab in the bowl far better than I do the slippery tendrils of the main ingredient. But as much as you may love conpoy, dried flotation bladders, crab eggs, braised fish cheeks and the other esoterica of Cantonese seafood cooking, it is hard to work up an appetite for the bitter taste of extinction.

Jonathan Gold is the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer for the LA Weekly.

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