On Gerrard Street, in the heart of London’s Chinatown, the air is thick with the sound of Chinese dialects and the sweet smell of roasting duck.
At the Golden Pagoda, shark’s fin is on the menu in soups with crab meat and chicken, at 6.60 pounds ($10.25) a bowl. At Loon Tao, it’s 10.50 pounds. It’s a traditional delicacy and you might think little will change, even as conservationists focus on the cruelty and the threat to sharks of slicing off fins.
You would be wrong.
“We’ve taken it off the menu,” says Yip-Cheong Wong, manager at the Golden Dragon, pointing to a sticker plastered across the soup section: “Save the shark: This item is no longer available.” He says shark’s fin was particularly popular with Russian customers, yet he will no longer serve it.
Next door, at the Royal Dragon, shark’s fin is still available, for now. “I hope we will take if off the menu,” says Pan Wyn, a supervisor. Why? “It’s cruel to sharks.”
The website of Royal China, with outlets in the U.K., China, Singapore and Dubai, states: “Consuming shark-fin is cruel and unnecessary. All Royal China restaurants are not serving shark-fin.”
Shark populations around the world are in rapid decline because of the demand for fins in Asia, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which estimates that more than 73 million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List designates 17 percent of assessed shark and ray species to be Threatened, 13 percent Near Threatened, 23 percent Least Concern and 47 percent Data Deficient, according to Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Twenty shark catchers account for almost 80 percent of the total haul, with Indonesia, India, Spain and Taiwan accountable for more than 35 percent, according to a report issued last week by Traffic and the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
“Sharks are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation because of their biological characteristics of maturing late, having few young and being long-lived,” the report says.
Apart from the impact on numbers, there is also the matter of cruelty as fins are sliced off live sharks that are then left to die, conservationists say. Chef Gordon Ramsay took up the cause last month with a program for U.K.’s Channel 4 that focused on cruelty. The manager of the Golden Dragon restaurant cites the program as one reason shark is off the menu.
(Ramsay caught two sharks off Florida about 18 months ago, the Daily Mail reported last week, quoting a spokesman for the chef as saying he no longer supports shark fishing.)
Ching He-Huang, a food writer and television chef, explains the importance of shark’s fin in Chinese culture.
“The Chinese traditionally eat shark’s fin soup at special occasions such as weddings,” she says. “It has also become a popular dish to be consumed at business banquets or dinner parties. It has appeared on the menus of Imperial China since the Sung dynasty (960 AD). It’s the ‘kou-gan,’ or ‘mouth feel,’ that is unique. I can’t tell you how much I love this dish.
“It’s not reasonable to judge another’s food choice, but the cruelty of this fishing is unquestionable and it’s our responsibility to safeguard all endangered species, which leads me to believe there should be a total worldwide ban.”
Tom Aikens, a chef known for his focus on environmental issues, has worked with the Environmental Justice Foundation to stop pirate fishing off the west coast of Africa.
“It’s not easy to police this or to protect sharks because you are talking about thousands and thousands of square miles of sea,” he says. “No one has cared about it until the last few years.
“You won’t see it on the menu now in high-profile places like Hakkasan: I’m sure quite a few of the restaurants in Chinatown sell it. It seems perfectly OK to mutilate a shark but if we went to a dog or cat and hacked off its legs and threw it in the bin people would be horrified. It’s barbaric.”
David Tang, the entrepreneur who founded the Shanghai Tang boutique chain, doesn’t serve shark’s fin at his China Tang restaurant at the Dorchester Hotel, yet says he is unconvinced by some of the ecological arguments about sharks.
“I have stopped serving shark fin to show that I care: Of course I don’t condone the culling of fins from live sharks and dumping them back in the sea in the cruel way in which they are depicted often,” he says. “I am wary of the propaganda -- making use of the worst kind of images to represent the norm -- and hypocrisy: It’s no worse than battery farming of chickens, say. I am also wary of the biodiversity argument, mainly because I believe in the principle of evolution and therefore extinction.”
Back on Gerrard Street, shark’s fin has gone from the menu of Lido restaurant, although the manager Alex Hui cites practical reasons rather than commitment to conservation.
“People came outside my restaurant telling diners not to come in because we were serving shark’s fin,” he says. “So I had to take it off the menu but it’s a traditional Chinese food and I wish I could still serve it to my customers.”
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)