News Column

Shark Fin Soup: 'The Predator Has Become the Prey'

Aug. 9, 2012

Vikki Ortiz Healy and Ted Gregory

At Ming Hin Cuisine in Chicago's Chinatown, a giant shark fin decorates the wall in the main dining room, and shark fin soup is offered on the banquet menu for customers willing to pay the price.

While a typical banquet might run $30 to $40 per person, adding the dish raises that cost to $80.

"It's very popular with older people, especially for wedding parties and baby showers," said Ling Liu, the restaurant's manager. "It's impressive."

But that status as a delicacy has contributed to what many consider a threatened shark population across the globe. To draw attention to the issue, a study to be released Thursday shows that endangered shark species are being consumed in those soups.

The study, compiled in part by the Field Museum, comes a few weeks after Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law banning the sale, trade and distribution of shark fins in the state. Illinois is the only inland state, and one of five, to authorize such a ban.

In a twist, shark attack survivors who now support conservation of the creatures helped collect some of the soup samples. Researchers determined that those gathered in 14 major U.S. cities, including Chicago, contained at-risk species, Pew Environment Group spokeswoman Rachel Brittin said.

"The predator has become the prey," Brittin added. "The ocean's top predator is really us, and so we have a responsibility to take a closer look and protect (sharks)."

At several markets in Chinatown, glass canisters sit on shelves featuring several varieties of dried shark fin -- large, yellowed triangles the size of a pizza slice. One market offers 17 different kinds, ranging from $270 to $848 per pound.

The Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce worked with Quinn's office to write the legislation for the shark fin ban, which takes effect Jan. 1. Until then, Liu said, her restaurant and many others in Chinatown are trying to use up inventory.

Diners probably will miss the delicacy, but Liu said she understands concerns about the endangered sharks.

Although many stores and restaurants carry shark fin soup, or dried shark fin, it's not a huge moneymaker, and the ban is not expected to hurt the community's economy, said Jessica Q. Lee, executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

"The Chinatown community fully supports" the ban, Lee said. "Everybody thinks it's a huge controversy in our community, but it really is not."

But consumption of shark fin is becoming an issue internationally. Fifty years of technological advances in the fishing industry have created a serious overfishing problem, said Liz Karan, manager of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group, which also participated in the study.

Upward of 73 million sharks are killed every year, primarily to supply the global shark fin industry, experts said. Hammerhead sharks are a particular concern. Their numbers in the northwest Atlantic have declined by 70 percent from "unexploited levels," Karan said.

She also noted that the International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that about 315 of 1,045 shark and ray species assessed by the group are threatened or near-threatened with extinction.

Encouraging signs are emerging. Since the Pew Environment Group, an arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts, started its international shark conservation campaign in 2009, Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands have established national shark sanctuaries, Karan noted.

In addition, China announced July 3 that it would stop serving shark fin soup at official banquets.

The testing confirms that a wide variety of sharks is being killed for their fins, and that U.S. -- not exclusively Asian -- consumption of fin soup is playing a role in shark decline, those involved in the study said.

The Field Museum's role in the analysis was that of genetic detective. Kevin Feldheim, a Ph.D. biologist and manager of the museum's Pritzker Laboratory, modified existing DNA bar-coding techniques to identify specific species of shark even after deterioration through fin treatment and cooking.

Feldheim and others noted that sharks, which predate dinosaurs, are critical predators in the food chain. They allow coral reefs to thrive and cull the weak and sick from commercially important fish such as tuna.

But they have an image problem, created by hit movies such as "Jaws" and media reports of shark attacks on tourist beaches.

"If these were dolphins or whales or turtles and they were getting their fins hacked off," Feldheim said, "there would be a huge outcry from the public."

Studies like the one he participated in may help alert the public, and awareness makes a difference, at least to Angie Gonzalez, of Plainfield.

Gonzalez, strolling through Chinatown with her two children in search of tasty dim sum Wednesday, said she would never order a meal that she knew included an endangered species.

"Why would anybody?" Gonzalez said. "That's just wrong."

Source: (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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