Excuse Me Waiter, But There’s an Endangered Species in My Bowl of Soup!

Would you eat a bowl of soup if you knew that is was made with minced endangered species? What about if it was also packed full with neurotoxins that can cause degenerative brain disease? Still hungry?

This is the case when it comes to shark fin soup, primarily a Chinese delicacy. The soup itself has no color, taste, or smell and requires addition of chicken, beef, or pork broth to add flavor. However, the cartilage from the shark fin provides texture to the soup. So, why consume it? Because it is a cultural sign of wealth and traditionally consumed at celebratory events including weddings.

Sadly, the demand for shark fin is driving several shark populations toward extinction. Tens of millions of sharks are killed annually for their fins[1]!  However, many shark species are late to mature, have few young and reproduce very infrequently – they are simply being removed faster than they can reproduce. For example, studies suggest that some hammerhead species in the northwest Atlantic have declined over 89% between 1986 and 2000[2]. A new study, which carried out DNA testing on shark fin soup served in 14 U.S. cities, revealed that endangered shark species, including hammerheads, were being served up at local restaurants[3].

Shark meat is rarely consumed. Their tissues contain high levels of urea (as in the main substance found in urine) that helps them osmoregulate in the oceans (jargon that basically means maintaining water balance so they don’t become too dehydrated)[4]. This makes their meat, for the most part, worthless. In contrast, trading in shark fins is extremely lucrative. A single bowl of soup can cost hundreds of dollars. So, when a boat goes out to harvest shark fins, they would prefer not to waste their precious cargo space on massive shark bodies, instead keeping only their fins. So, in most parts of the world, fisherman catch the sharks, hack off their fins, and discard the rest of the shark’s body at sea, leaving them to die on the ocean floor. This act is called “finning.”

In many countries, such as the U.S., finning is illegal. Here, the whole shark has to be brought back to shore before their fins are removed and body discarded. The notion is that this restriction limits the amount of sharks that can be brought back (due to boat space constraints). However, several shark populations have declined so much, that this constraint may not be enough…at this point, it is becoming a numbers game.

Photo: Shark fins drying in the sun
Shark fins drying in the sun in Kaohsiung before processing. 30 percent of the world’s shark species are Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction. Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group

Although shark fins are primarily consumed in Asia, shark finning (and fishing for their fins), is a global phenomenon. According to trade data from Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department, 83 countries or territories supplied more than 10.3 million kilograms (22.7 million pounds) of shark fin products to Hong Kong in 2011[5]. The top countries exporting fins to China include Spain, Mexico, and the U.S.

. “]”]Photo: Global shark fin trade import and export”]Photo: Global shark fin trade import and exportSo why should we care? Several reasons. Well, as top predators, many sharks play an important role in the ocean ecosystem[6]. Studies suggest that overfishing of large sharks can have rippling effects, influencing other animals in the community, which sometimes have negative consequences for both the environment and humans. Sharks are also economically important when kept alive. In fact, studies have found that sharks are worth more alive than dead[7]. Scuba divers are willing to pay more money to see sharks when they go diving. In over 20 years, the Bahamas have offered over 1 million shark-diver interactions, contributing an estimated gross of US$800 million to the Bahamian economy[8]. This doesn’t even consider the money that people spend on hotels, food, flights, etc. In the small developing community of Donsol, Philippines, whale shark tourism is responsible for bringing the local municipalities out of poverty by generating over 300 jobs and providing more than 200 fishermen seasonal employment[9].

Shark fishing also doesn’t have to be destructive. Shark catch and release fishing is a great way to enjoy the animal and is another way that the economy can benefit from live sharks.

As if you needed another reason to curb your appetite for shark fin, a recent study found that shark fins contain high levels of a neurotoxin called BMAA. This toxin is linked with neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The study suggested that consumers of shark fin put themselves at risk of getting these diseases[10].

Despite the ecological, economical, and health reasons to save sharks, I personally cringe at the thought of allowing a magnificent creature to go extinct under my watch. Sharks have inhabited the planet for 440 million years, surviving many of the worlds’ natural mass extinction events. Now, several shark populations are on that downward spiral to extinction due to human actions. In the future, old episodes on Discovery’s Shark Week may be the only way for people to see several shark species.

The iconic fin of a great white shark cuts through the water, but is it soup bound? (Image courtesy Neil Hammerschlag)

Most consumers of the soup are unaware of these issues. In fact, in Chinese, shark fin soup is often called “fish wing soup.” I believe that increased awareness of these issues will lower the demand and ensure the survival of these species.

What can you do to help? Lots! Here is a list to get you started:

–          Educate yourself (Congrats, you are already doing that)

–          Educate others (Spread the word)

–          Go see sharks (Go on a shark dive)

–          Take your kids to an aquarium (Georgia Aquarium has 4 whale sharks and offers opportunities for swimmers)

–          Practice responsible catch and release fishing

–          Eat sustainable seafood

–          Support the creating of Marine Protected Areas and Shark Sanctuaries

–          Don’t eat shark fin soup and support shark fin bans

–          Encourage and praise restaurants that make the choice not to serve shark fin soup

–          Support reputable shark conservation organizations

–          Support reputable shark conservation research

–          Speak up!


These views are my own.

[1] Clarke, S.C., McAllister, M.K., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Kirkwood, G.P., Michielsens, C.G.J., Agnew, D.J., Pikitch, E.K., Nakano, H., and M.S. Shivji. (2006), “Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets.” Ecology Letters, 9:1115-1126

[2] Myers, R. a, J. K. Baum, T. D. Shepherd, S. P. Powers, and C. H. Peterson. (2007). Cascading effects of the loss of apex predatory sharks from a coastal ocean. Science 315:1846-50.

[4] Hammerschlag N. (2006). Osmoregulation in Elasmobranchs: A review for fish biologists, behaviourists and ecologists. Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology 39(3): 209-228.

[6] Estes, J. a, J. Terborgh, J. S. Brashares, M. E. Power, J. Berger, W. J. Bond, S. R. Carpenter, T. E. Essington, R. D. Holt, J. B. C. Jackson, R. J. Marquis, L. Oksanen, T. Oksanen, R. T. Paine, E. K. Pikitch, W. J. Ripple, S. a Sandin, M. Scheffer, T. W. Schoener, J. B. Shurin, A. R. E. Sinclair, M. E. Soulé, R. Virtanen, and D. a Wardle. 2011. Trophic downgrading of planet Earth. Science , 333:301-6.

[7] Gallagher, A.J., and N. Hammerschlag. (2011). Global Shark Currency: The Distribution, Frequency and Economic Value of Shark Eco-tourism. Current Issues in Tourism, 14(8):792-812

[8] Cline,W. (2008). Shark diving overview for the islands of the Bahamas (p. 11). Nassau, Report of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. Nassau, Bahamas: Cline Marketing Group.

[9] Norman, B. and J. Catlin. (2007). Economic importance of conserving whale sharks. Report for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Sydney, 18 pp.

[10] Mondo, K., Hammerschlag, N., Basile, M., Pablo, J., Banack, S.A. and D.C. Mash DC. (2012). Cyanobacterial Neurotoxin β-N-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) in Shark Fins, Marine Drugs, 10(2), 509-520; doi:10.3390/md10020509

Changing Planet


Research Associate Professor at the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science Dedicated to advancing marine conservation through research, education and outreach Views my Own