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Deep-Sea Predators Threatened by Bowls of Chinese Soup

(From beavertonvalleytimes.com)- This month, the eyes of the world are on Beijing and many travelers are experiencing Chinese cuisine for the first time. Among dishes of sea cucumber, scorpion and thousand-year-old egg, one high-profile Chinese delicacy is setting off alarms among environmentalists: shark fin soup. The soup, made from the stringy cartilage found inside sharks fins, is responsible for the worldwide slaughter of millions of sharks. Hunters often slice the fins off live sharks, and then toss the helpless animals back into the ocean to die, a practice known as finning.

Monterey Bay Aquariums Seafood Watch, which is widely recognized as an authority on sustainable seafood, estimates that 50 million sharks a year are finned. Another 50 million die when they become bycatch, a term for sea life that is caught accidentally during the process of fishing for other products such as tuna.

The history of shark fin soup goes back to ancient times, but as Chinas economy has boomed in recent years, its appetite for the soup has grown stronger.

At the same time, overseas Chinese communities in America and Europe are increasingly rediscovering the traditional delicacy.

Combined with other threats such as pollution and climate change, demand for shark fins is pushing the worlds shark population into a downward spiral.

The Washington Post reported in June that shark populations in the heavily fished Mediterranean have shrunk by 97 percent over the past 200 years.

In protected areas such as the Galapagos Marine Reserve, unknown numbers of sharks are being killed by poachers.

Although finning is illegal in many parts of the world, including the United States, the practice remains widespread, for a simple reason. Shark fins are extremely valuable on the Asian market, where they are sold for soup and as medicine. Like ivory or heroin, the fins are lucrative enough to attract traffickers.

With fins, bigger is better

In Chinese culture, shark fin soup is a status symbol and an aphrodisiac. Served on special occasions, it carries connotations of health, wealth, and virility.

Its good for the man, says David Sun, who manages special merchandising for the Beaverton supermarket Uwajimaya. The store, which specializes in Asian products, sells packaged shark fin soup, with either scallops or crab, for $9.99 a can.

For soup, just about any species of shark will do, although the bigger the fin, the better. (Shark meat also is eaten, but it doesnt have the cachet of shark fin soup.)

Shark fin is expensive, not an everyday item, says John Wong, the office manager for the Northwest China Council, a nonprofit educational organization based in Portlands Chinatown. When shark fin soup is served at the start of a wedding dinner, he says, the guests think, Oh, this is going to be a good banquet.

The 60-year-old Wong, whose parents came to the United States from China before he was born, says he used to see more shark fin soup served locally when he was younger. He guesses that hes only had it once in the last five years. He was unaware of the finning issue until a call from Sustainable Life prompted him to do some research.

Now he compares the soup to the French delicacy foie gras. You dont think about it, he says, And then one hears about what happens to these poor animals, and one thinks twice.

Only a handful of Portlands more high-end Chinese restaurants carry shark fin soup.

Francis Koo, the manager at downtowns Sungari, says he removed the item from his menu after receiving complaints via mail and e-mail.

Wongs King Seafood, a monumental banquet spot on Southeast Division Street, serves it along with other rarities and fish pulled live from display tanks. Fu Wong, a spokesman for the restaurant, declined by e-mail to answer any questions, citing company policy.

Lam Phuong, a manager at Legin, also on Southeast Division, calls shark fin soup a sensitive subject. They sell very little of it, he says, since it goes for $15 a serving. The shark fins used by Legin are supplied by either of two wholesale food vendors; Phuong doesnt know where the fins originate.

Fubonn, the Asia supermarket on Southeast 82nd Avenue, carries several brands and styles of shark fin, stored behind the customer service counter.

A medicine called Cartiligins ‘ shark fin in capsule form ‘ is made by the California company Baxco Pharma, and is tagged with the words Made in the USA.

Dried shark fin fibers, ready to be slow-cooked in a broth of chicken and pork, are wrapped in clear cellophane. Stringy and translucent, they look a lot like rice noodles.

Fubonns two most expensive brands, Diamond Brand or Hop Kee Sharks Fin Co., both cost $32.95 for about three ounces. Both come from Hong Kong.

Deeply rooted cultural practice

Most shark fins are sold in Asia, but last year, the Virginia-based Animal Welfare Institute launched a campaign to convince American restaurants to stop serving shark fin soup. Its an uphill battle, according to Serda Ozbenian, a research assistant who is working on the campaign.

A lot of the restaurant owners Ive talked to, its hard to even engage them in the conversation because they automatically think that youre attacking their culture, Ozbenian says. They get pretty sensitive about it.

Many restaurant owners have told her theyll serve the soup as long as their customers want it ‘ and as long as its not illegal. If you dont have it, youre looked down upon, she says. I compare it to wearing fur, its a status thing.

The movement to ban finning has been gradually gaining steam. In 2006, the Chinese-born NBA basketball player Yao Ming spoke out against the soup, pledging to stop eating it. (Ironically, he once played for the Shanghai Sharks.)

The release of the film Sharkwater in 2006 also made a splash. Documentarian Rob Stewart captured graphic footage of shark finning in Guatemala, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and the films Web site (www.sharkwater.com) has become a source for shark conservation information.

Stewart, a Canadian wildlife photographer and lifelong shark lover, originally set out to create an ecology-minded nature film.

I was banking on my ability to take pretty pictures and to be able to come back with a pretty underwater movie about sharks, Stewart recounts in an e-mail message. I figured if I could make a film that gave people a new view of sharks, counter to Jaws, then perhaps theyd want to fight for their protection as they would for pandas, elephants and bears.

However, much of the drama of the film turned out to unreel above water, as Stewart encountered gangsters and pirates and realized the extent of the damage the demand for shark fins was creating.

According to Stewart, landings of sharks by any boat were banned in Costa Rica five days after the film was released there. Six conservation groups have been founded by people who were moved by the film, including the New York-based Shark Savers.

The biggest issue facing the oceans today is awareness, Stewart says. We need more people talking about the issue.

The sharks unexpected turn in the limelight appears to have prodded lawmakers into action. A bill to strengthen shark-finning restrictions in American waters is currently before the U.S. Senate. But shark-watchers fear the creatures plight will worsen unless the soup aficionados stop swallowing their consciences.

(By Anne Marie DiStefano)

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