There are lots of different issues surrounding animal rights and animal cruelty from vivisection (using animals to test products) to foie gras (forced feeding of ducks). There are many concerns around the slaughter of dolphins (specifically in Taiji), the slaughter of harp seals (in Canada), the “culling” of elephants in South Africa, and the over-fishing of “big game” fish like tuna, swordfish, mackerel, along with sharks for shark fin soup to name only a few. In the case of shark fin soup specifically, there is the case of tradition whilst also referring to the tragedy of a shark’s death.
The idea of tradition giving a free pass to exploiting animals that may be endangered or otherwise allowed substitution in the food culture, has gained popularity in places like Japan, Norway and Finland where whaling is said to be a tradition and that it’s important in the name of culture, to continue doing it. Whaling, however, has the support of almost every country the world over on behalf of the whales as a tradition that needs to end. As with whaling, tuna is also used in many dishes especially in sashimi or sushi and tuna is on the verge of extinction due to the same mentality that good food from the sea comes from a source that is endless and plentiful. Shark fin soup has come under much attack for similar reasons and it has been pointed out that sharks’ fins are cut off while the rest of the body is thrown back into the ocean to bleed out.
It’s all very disturbing the more you learn and despite all the gore, there are two perspectives to keep in mind when you’re touching on the sensitive issue of culture and what a person needs, likes, loves, and wants. There is nothing wrong with enjoying foods that may have come from an origin– like the forced feeding of a duck– especially when that has a cultural connection for you. The problem isn’t that these foods are delicious or commonly enjoyed, the problem lies on other levels that you can see when you take a look at the big picture of what your enjoyment of food is in relation to the world.
Where did the food originate from? When there were only a few thousand or hundred thousand people in a major metropolitan area and fishermen still meant a lineage of people that would ride their boat out into the waters during the day and come back at night, things were different. When fishermen are now out to sea for months at a time leaving traps in the water and catching what they can in dangerous waters because the waters immediately around them have been over-fished to the point where no more fish remain, you can be sure that things are different. In a time when a shark or many sharks may have been caught and used for food, the rest of the shark was also eaten.
In today’s world, however, the problem isn’t that the food shouldn’t be eaten. It’s that fishermen, in an effort to save time and make a living, use fishing methods that are destructive and deleterious to the ocean environment. There are so many fish and other marine life that are caught in fishing lines extending miles into the ocean– some of these marine animals are sea turtles, sharks, tuna, dolphins, and others. It’s very tragic.
The unfortunate part of all this is that whether or not you consume shark fin soup, any fish you eat (with the exception of salmon which is a separate horror) is indirectly or directly supporting this destructive practice. Most sharks that are fished are used for the meat and the fins so there isn’t the type of waste that many associate with this dish but (in this case there’s a big “but”) shark fins are taken off of bycatch from fishing lines and other destructive fishing practices (bottom trawling etc). There is no way to tell where the fin came from. Though the shark fin soup may not likely be from a shark that was by-catch, any fish you eat is supporting this practice. If even one fin is sold, it’s worth the risk to the purveyors of these methods.
This kind of destructive practice puts many creatures like sea turtles deeper into an endangered status. It also is unnecessarily wasteful and cruel to other animals. There is no need for this kind of fishing to happen and yet it does often and many animals are killed by drowning on the wire every day! Because of bottom trawling, long-line fishing, and over-fishing in general, it is best to avoid foods that support the fishing industry.
You can’t tell which industries are practicing destructive practices but you can definitely act as a conscious consumer knowing which kinds of fish come from where and what the effect and the manner in which they’re typically harvested is. What can you do if you’re inclined to eat shark fin soup or something of the nature? There isn’t much you can do. The corruption in fishing practices and the total lack of oversight by government and international bodies makes it very difficult to delineate where your fish came from and whether the entire shark was used in processing or just the fin.
It sounds rather trite to dismiss an entire dish and custom based off of these politics in one way– it makes sense that Asian cultures (specifically Chinese culture) that eat and enjoy shark fin soup would feel that their traditions are being robbed from them. In another way, it is a demonstration of the different dynamics that are at play in bringing food to your plate. Though the idea that shark fin soup is something that can be enjoyed by all with little consequences, the fact is that there are always consequences that in the grand scheme of things will adversely affect many more beings and parts of the earth than missing that special dish.
Tuna are on the verge of extinction due to over-fishing. Though sushi seems like a tradition that shouldn’t be touched and is an extremely popular food to consume all around the world, there aren’t enough tuna to feed the entire world’s sushi habit. To continue to allow sushi to be fished just because the demand is high and others crave it does not take into account the eco-systems that are being robbed by the absence of this important predator fish.
On the other end of the spectrum is the destructive environmental practices of raising animals that don’t belong in an environment like cutting rainforest to make land for cows to graze on! The destruction to the earth by clear-cutting the diverse eco-systems of the rainforest for one species to eat grass off of is just incomprehensibly and mind-bogglingly destructive. Eating any cow meat with very few exceptions, contributes directly to this practice (amongst many others).
So even though tradition might call for certain foods, there is a deeper consideration to be made. It goes beyond animal rights or tradition and asks everyone to evaluate what they put in their mouths and how that food has an impact on the planet. Eating meat that has caused the irreplaceable demolition of the most bio-diverse places of the world, contributing to a system that lets over 140,000 tons of by-catch back into the ocean a year. Simply the way business is being done is unsustainable (to say the least) and until a more sustainable and environmentally sane practice can be put into place, there is no amount of nostalgic desire that can justify eating foods from animals that by their very popularity and demand has causes unquantifiable suffering to the world’s eco-systems.
It is nothing against tradition– traditions are special because the endure and that should always be honored no matter how barbaric it seems to others. It is the travesty of letting harmful practice become standard to the ill effect of the world and everyone and everything that lives within it.