22 February marked the end of 15 days of Lunar New Year celebrations. I managed to celebrate the Chinese welcoming of Spring with my family who came up to Texas to meet my sister and me. Being able to have a family reunion was fantastic, but most importantly, I looked forward to the food. Equivalent to American’s Thanksgiving dinner, a bountiful spread on the dinner table is perhaps the most defining part of Chinese New Year. Fish in Chinese is 鱼, which is a heterograph of 余 which means excess, both words pronounced the same but with a different meaning. A popular Chinese idiom “年年有余” is a blessing wished upon others that they will have a year marked by excess. Thus, without fail, there has to be one fish on the plate at celebratory dinners to symbolise prosperity. According to customs, there must be excess left of the fish — but I personally love fish too much to see it go uneaten.
One can’t talk about Chinese celebrations and fish without acknowledging one of the largest of them all – the sharks. The conflict between culture and conservation has been discussed at length regarding sharks. I have had shark fin soup before, and more than once. It’s a confession that I have been given much grief over particularly by my Western friends, and for good reason. As a symbol of luxury in Eastern cultures, demand has been growing along with China’s economy, resulting in increasing pressure on shark populations. Additionally, fishing practices where live sharks are tossed back into the ocean after having their fins sliced off is considered brutal by many animal welfare advocates.
As mentioned, I had shark fin soup as a child, before I knew of the practices and ecological impacts of the trade. Aggressive educational campaigns have definitely increased awareness of the issue, particularly among youths. However, I recall clearly at a Chinese New Year dinner a couple of years ago where we were invited by a close family friend. I refused to eat the shark fin soup, but rather than it being sent back to the kitchen, my dad just had a second portion instead, which was probably terrible for his mercury levels. And when I tried to explain that the taste comes from the chicken broth and as cartilage, shark fin doesn’t actually have any taste and it’s crunchy but jelly-like texture can be reproduced by environmentally-friendlier alternatives, I was simply treated with a condescending nod by the adults. At home, I got disciplined for lacking manners and not giving the host ‘face’.
I am in no way condoning the practice or denying the impacts, but as I’m beginning to realize in the Marine Fisheries Policy class by Dr. Barbara Garrity-Blake this block here at the Marine Lab, fisheries are more complicated than I’ve imagined. Simply placing a ban on fishing or imports without considering the cultural rights, livelihoods of fishers, and possible emergence of a black market would be far from effective. Compounding the lack of regulation is the paucity of reliable data on shark populations to form an adequate stock assessment. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the charisma associated with this predator nor ethical debate on whether fish can feel pain.
What do I think the future holds? It’s hard to say honestly.Growing international cooperation is cautiously optimistic, but is more often marred by cultural differences and lack of political will. Meanwhile, climate change and habitat destruction add to the threats endangering sharks. The obsession with shark fin soup seems to be dying out with newer generations, but I doubt the demand will extinguish completely. While I accept that a shark fishery will exist, I do hope that they will leave some excess in the oceans.