It’s a strange thing that a regional appetite for soup on the other side of the world brings me and the SEA collaborative (Shark Ecosystem Assessment or SEAC) to the Bahamas to research some of the fiercest sharks in the ocean.
Sharks sit atop the ocean’s food chain and play critical roles in regulating balanced ocean environments. Similar to a wolf in Alaska preying on sick or weak caribou to keep the herd strong, sharks manage fish populations with marked precision. However, even these apex predators are vulnerable to human activities and are in peril throughout most of the world’s oceans.
Tens of millions of sharks are caught annually. This is largely a result of increasing demand for shark fin soup, a popular luxury dish in Asia that can fetch upwards of $100 per bowl. Whilst growing economic prosperity in China has led to increased demand for the dish once known as the ‘Emperor’s dish’, many species, including the oceanic whitetip, have become critically endangered.
So why shark fins?
People are after thin collagen-like strips in the fin called ceratotrichia, similar in consistency to a fingernail. These strips look like folds in an accordion. Once dried and processed, they produce thin clear noodles that do not actually add any flavor to the soup, simply texture.
Each shark is harvested for just four fins: one on the top (the dorsal), 2 on the sides (paired pectoral), and the lower fork of their tail (lower caudal lobe). The lower tail is the most expensive because it has the most ceratotrichia versus cartilage content. Although it varies on the size and species of shark, each fin makes enough noodles for a cup or two of soup.
Think about the amount of sharks killed to serve each guest a bowl of soup at just one wedding!