Friday, December 19, 2008

PSA: Shark Fin

My sister makes a very good point about life and the stupid things that we do with some "traditions"...
Hi all:

I wanted to reach out to all of you to tell you about an issue that I've learned about lately, that I hope you can help with -- not by giving any of your money or time, but simply by giving up shark's fin, a type of food that contributes to a barbaric and ecologically disastrous practice. It is especially important for me to share this issue with you this holiday season, as we are all celebrating the holidays with special festivities, giving our thanks for another year of good health, and looking ahead to a cleaner, more prosperous, and renewed tomorrow.

In the last year, I have personally decided not to eat shark's fin, because it is ecologically harmful. However, after learning more about this issue in the last month, I have decided to not eat shark's fin again from today forward, and to also veto shark's fin at any meals at which I am able to do so. I wanted to write this email to help you understand why I have come to this decision, whether we are lucky enough to dine together or not. For those of you with whom I will be dining over the holidays, I hope you understand that I will do my best to ensure that shark's fin is NOT on any of the menus. And I thank you for understanding and accepting my position, if you can. Below, I will try to explain why shark's fin is so harmful. Hopefully, after reading it, you will not only understand my reasoning, but also restrict your own consumption. If you love it, you don't have to ban it from your diet entirely, as I have. However, I would ask that you give thanks for your good fortune in this world to have had the opportunity to feast like no other generation of humans in history, and desist from regular consumption of this delicacy. Instead, please limit your shark's fin consumption to the ceremonial, rare, and special experience it was intended to be-- a feast fit only for emperors and royalty, for only the most special of lifetime occasions. Or in our case, a rarity enjoyed at most, once a year.

The event that really bolstered my personal interest in this issue was an hourlong documentary that I accidentally caught on CNN. As I learned from the documentary, what generally happens is that ships go to sea for months at a time, throw out thousands of hooks for sharks, harvest the shark fins (from wild sharks in the open ocean) by slicing off the fins as the sharks are still alive and struggling, and throw the fin-less sharks' bodies (still alive and struggling, but unable to swim) back into the ocean where they sink to the bottom of the ocean and die. The ships can sell the fins for up to US$1,000 each, which is much more valuable than the bodies/meat. Therefore, they fill up the ships with sharks' fins (much smaller and lighter) and eventually come back to port with hundreds and hundreds of the fins. Most of the shark's fin caught in international waters goes through Taiwan or Hong Kong, to the rest of Asia-- a fact that really hit home for me because I am from Taiwan. At the ports, the fins are processed in a manner that results in almost all of the shark's fin-- save for the skeletal cartilage-- being discarded. I was haunted by these images, particularly of the way these animals are butchered, in obvious pain, and mostly wasted. What upsets me even more about this barbaric practice is that this is all for a nutritionally unnecessary delicacy-- essentially, all caused by human greed. As the documentary explained, this practice is bolstered by the growth of the middle class in Asia, who can now afford to eat this delicacy. It used to be a luxury only for the very rich, enjoyed only on special occasions. Now it is a common treat for people across Asia, consumed regularly and sold at all prices, from cheap to expensive.
Even though sharks are endangered, the line fishing and butchering of sharks for their fins is not prohibited in international waters, so this is mostly legal. There are some regulations (such as that carcasses must be accounted for; and in some ports, the sharks must be brought in with fins attached), but these are generally not followed. Even in areas where the practice of hunting sharks is prohibited, they are policed only a few days per year. So the practice runs unchecked and is fueled largely by the seemingly insatiable demand.

In addition to the barbarism of the practice itself, the negative results trickle down all the way through the ocean's ecosystems, because sharks are at the top of the food chain. As it affects us, the destruction of the animal at the top of the food chain has completely changed the industries and economies that depend on the oceans.
Now, I know that all sorts of things we say in life could be seen as hypocritical. For example, I eat meat-- and the way meat is slaughtered is inhumane. Everything we do, from the clothes we wear, to the cars we drive, to the water we drink has its costs to humans and to the environment. Also, perhaps the worst human greed and selfishness impacts humans, not animals-- wars, genocides, and the like. The things we do to each other, and the world, are terrible.
But I guess all that doesn't mean we can't do things to help when we can. And also, there is a difference between eating slaughtered beef for food (where we eat most of the animal), and eating shark's fin where the animal is almost entirely discarded, just for the delicacy. Also, frankly, I think beef can taste good (and, I do try to only eat it when I think it is very good), whereas shark's fin, since it's just cartilage, basically has no taste.
So as I mentioned at the top of this email, I guess there are a couple of things to draw from this. As I mentioned above, the most important thing you can do is very simple: push back on the demand for shark's fin, by eating less of it. A lot less. None, if you can. And the second thing you can do is to educate those around you. I think many, many, many people don't know about this issue, and if each of us just changed our habits and educated each other, it would make a huge difference.

Thanks for reading.

So, as in tradition, what have we learned?