If you’re in Los Angeles and the mood strikes, you can order shark fin soup from China Gate Restaurant for home delivery for $16.95.
But that would be against state law. California is one of 12 states that bans the sale of shark fins—measures to help prevent further declines of shark populations and to deter finning, which has been illegal in U.S. waters since 2000. Although demand for shark fins for soup is greatest in Asian countries, there’s significant demand for them in the United States too.
A man who identified himself as the China Gate Restaurant owner’s brother says the online listing is a mistake and denies that the restaurant serves the dish.
Finning involves slicing fins off live sharks and tossing the wounded animals overboard, where they sink to the bottom and, unable to swim and pass water over their gills, suffocate, die of blood loss, or get eaten by other predators.
“It’s without doubt, the worst act of animal cruelty I’ve ever seen,” says celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in his television documentary on the shark fishing industry.
Every year, the Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports a national ban on shark fin, updates its list of restaurants that serve shark fin soup and notifies the relevant state enforcement agencies.
But so far, according to the institute, the bans haven’t stopped restaurants in at least 10 of the 12 states.
During the past two years, at least five bills relating to the country’s shark fin trade have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. All five died before becoming laws, leaving the fate of sharks in the U.S. uncertain.
Many countries don’t regulate shark finning, says Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, an environmental group that strives to reduce consumption of wildlife products. What this means, activists say, is that Americans could be getting their fins from countries that catch and mutilate sharks, diminishing their already dwindling global populations.
Because of overfishing and the demand for shark fin for soup, more than a quarter of the world’s sharks, rays, and chimaeras (a cartilaginous fish also known as ghost sharks) are considered to be threatened. In a 2012 study, researchers found the DNA of eight different sharks, including the endangered scalloped hammerhead, as well as vulnerable species like the shortfin mako and the spiny dogfish, in soup samples collected from around the U.S.
Shark fin soup has long been a status dish in Asian countries, notably China, where its use can be traced back to an emperor from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) who is thought to have invented the dish to show off his power and wealth. Shark fin eventually became exalted as one of the four treasures of Chinese cuisine, along with abalone, sea cucumber, and fish maw (swim bladders).
Today, it’s a luxury dish served at weddings as a sign of respect for guests. Preparation of the soup involves boiling the fins and scraping off the skin and meat, leaving behind softened protein fiber, which is sometimes shredded before it goes into the soup.
What is a luxury to some is a headache to understaffed enforcement agencies in the U.S. states that ban shark fin. They say that cases against shark fin vendors in those states can be hard to make. Because the shark fin trade tends to go underground, it has been compared to the illicit drug trade.
“I know it’s going on, I know it’s out there,” says San Francisco marine warden William O'Brien. “But it’s a very private matter—it’s not the kind of thing that, you know, people are selling to the public.”
In addition, according to several law enforcement agents, fines and jail sentences for violating the shark fin ban are generally light and have little deterrent effect.
Knights says a U.S. ban on sales of shark fin would be a significant step forward because it would send the message that selling and consuming shark fin isn’t acceptable anymore. The sale of shark fin, he says, “continues to increase the sort of pressure on sharks worldwide.”
But, argues Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory, in Sarasota, Florida, given how difficult it is for some states to enforce their shark fin bans, a nationwide ban would just drive the shark fin market underground—as it’s done in San Francisco.
The enforcement challenge
California has about a third of the country’s Asian population and is one of the largest consumers of shark fin outside Asia.
When the shark fin ban passed in California in 2011, San Francisco marine warden William O'Brien says he was “charged up.” He’d been keeping a list of restaurants to inspect once the ban went into force.
Almost immediately, he and his team received a tip about a supplier, and they confiscated more than 2,000 pounds of shark fin from a warehouse near San Francisco Bay. He estimates that the haul was worth at least $500,000. The accused, Michael Kwong, a shark fin wholesaler and vocal opponent of the shark fin ban who said his family had been in the business for four generations, pleaded no contest to violating the shark fin ban. According to court records, he spent 30 days in jail, paid a court fine, and received three years’ probation.
Since then, O’Brien says, the leads have dried up. He suspects restaurants and market owners are now storing their shark fin supplies off premises—perhaps in their homes, which would be off-limits to law enforcement without a search warrant.
“Essentially, the market has gone so far underground that it requires more specialization than I have to dig it up,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien’s overall responsibilities include monitoring for illegal ivory, the pet trade, and illegal animal products in medication, and he must also check hunting and fishing licenses almost daily. He reckons that in any given month, he’s able to devote only about two days to shark fin.
“It would be great if I was like, the shark fin guy, and that was all I did,” O’Brien laments.
A complicating factor is that a restauranteur accused of selling shark fin soup may claim it’s imitation or made from a species of shark exempt from the ban. Spiny and smooth dogfish sharks, for example, are exempt in New York State. It’s possible to identify a species from a freshly cut fin, but once a fin is dried or absorbed in soup, the only way to prove it’s a species in violation of the law is through DNA testing.
DNA makes the case
To ascertain whether a crime has been committed, authorities must establish whether the DNA in a seized sample of soup is actually that of a shark. The specimens Ashley Spicer tests and analyzes as a part of her work in the Wildlife Forensics Lab at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife vary from suspected shark fin soup in plastic to-go containers to frozen fins in vacuum-sealed packaging.
Spicer examined California’s 2018 shark cases—all four of them. Only two of those cases were specifically shark fin; the others were a shark attack case and a poaching case. In all, the two shark fin cases she handled in 2018 involved about 20 different shark fins.
Low test numbers don’t necessarily represent every California shark fin case that comes to the attention of authorities. If, for example, a case elicits an immediate confession on the part of the accused, authorities may decide that testing isn’t necessary.
DNA testing proved successful in a recent case in Plano, Texas, one of the states where shark fin is banned. Mike Stephens, a game warden with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, went into a local dim sum restaurant—in uniform—with a colleague and asked for the “special” menu. And there it was: shark fin soup.
To assure them the shark fin was real, not imitation, the restaurant owner’s wife led the wardens to a walk-in freezer where they found about six bags of shark fins. Stephens assumes that the owner, Qi Zhou, and his wife didn’t realize the real reason behind the wardens’ visit until it was too late. Before they left, Stephens says, Zhou’s wife told them they weren’t the only ones selling shark fin. The supermarket next door was offering it too, she said.
Sure enough, when the wardens went to the supermarket, Tao Marketplace, to investigate, they found nearly 40 shark carcasses, the tail fins removed, on display in the fresh fish aisle and in storage.
Wearing rubber gloves so as not to contaminate the evidence, they sealed the fins from both places in separate containers and overnighted them to a lab in North Carolina for DNA testing.
The case against the supermarket is still pending, but the restaurant owner was found guilty of selling shark fin and paid a fine: one dollar. The court also ordered Zhou to make a donation to the Animal Welfare Institute, which totaled less than a thousand dollars, Stephens says.
According to the institute, in Texas and most other states, prison sentences for shark fin transgressions are rare and usually don’t exceed six months for a first offense. Fines are usually less than a thousand dollars. By contrast, a single pound of dried shark fin can sell for $400, and shark fin soup can command anywhere from $50 to $200.
“It’s tough to get jail time on wildlife cases,” says Jesse Paluch, a captain with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bureau of Environmental Crimes Investigation unit. In New York, he says, judges and prosecutors “see so much crime, so wildlife crime is a little bit lower on the spectrum.”
Fins in the dumpster
In October 1988, when Robert Hueter was getting his start at the Mote Marine Laboratory, he heard from a colleague that a group of fishermen off the Florida Panhandle had been caught harpooning bottlenose dolphins, whose meat and blood they used to bait sharks. Killing bottlenose dolphins was and still is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. When the fishermen caught sharks, they sliced off their fins and threw the mutilated animals, still alive, back into the water.
This is sick, Hueter says he thought at the time. He’d never heard of shark finning, so he contacted Nelson Bryant, a reporter he knew at The New York Times, who wrote a pioneering story about the practice. Today, shark finning is the subject of documentaries, public protests, and Facebook posts.
Hueter says the fishermen were handed minor fines for killing the dolphins—and no penalty for finning the sharks. “There was no crime in what they’d done with the sharks,” he says.
Since then, Hueter has been an advocate for sharks. Which is why, he says, he’s against a national shark fin ban.
“The folks that are pushing the fin ban campaign want to simplify it to this very simple message—that if we ban the fin trade in the United States, we save sharks all around the world,” Heuter says. “That is so simplistic and so wrong.”
He says that of course he’s against finning and overfishing but that cutting the fins off a legally caught dead shark isn’t cruel, and banning a specific dish won’t stop shark finning because shark finning is already illegal in U.S. waters. But, he says, a ban will ensure that fins from dead sharks are wasted.
“It would cause [fishermen] to have to throw the fins into the dumpster. It goes totally against our doctrine of full utilization of fishery products—that when we harvest fishes from the sea, we don’t want to throw stuff away. We want to use absolutely everything we can.”
David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist with Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, and the man behind the popular Twitter account @whysharksmatter, says it’s unreasonable for people to criticize using shark fins for soup when they may eat shark meat in other forms.
“There are people who are outraged at the idea of consuming a bowl of shark fin soup who are not outraged at the idea of eating a mako shark steak on the grill,” he says. “From my perspective, as a shark conservation biologist, either way you’ve got a dead shark. Shark fin soup has sort of become this boogie man of ocean conservation.”
As an alternative to a national ban, in 2018 Hueter helped draft the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, which Representative Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican, says he plans to reintroduce this session. This bill, Hueter says, would allow imports only from countries that prohibit finning and promote shark conservation.
But Susan Millward, director of the marine animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute, says a blanket ban is still the best answer.
“Even if you have a sustainable shark fin trade, there’s still going to be a trade in shark finning,” she says. “There’s always going to be people who want to flout it.”
“When the buying stops, the killing can too”
Chinese basketball star Yao Ming pushes a white ceramic cup of shark fin soup across a table. In an aquarium tank to his right, a bleeding computer-generated shark sinks to the bottom. “Remember,” he says, staring into the camera lens, “when the buying stops, the killing can too.”
Since 2011, consumption of shark fin soup in China has fallen by about 80 percent, both because of national bans on serving shark fin at government banquets and the effect of celebrity-backed awareness campaigns such as Yao Ming’s, seen by millions of Chinese.
According to a 2018 WildAid report, when WildAid began its Chinese anti-shark fin campaign in 2006, 75 percent of consumers didn’t realize the soup they were eating was made from shark, and many who did know mistakenly thought that sharks’ fins grew back after they were cut off.
Many conservationists believe that similar awareness-raising efforts in the U.S. would curb demand. People generally don’t give much thought to what they’re eating, Millward says. “It’s just a lack of connecting the dots with where this product came from, how it started with a live animal and how much suffering was endured to reach this finished product … These animals are dying painfully, and their whole ecosystems are being affected—for what?”
Her question begs another: Why shark fin? It’s widely known that the fin adds no taste or health benefits to shark fin soup; rather, it gives the soup a crystalline, noodle-like texture, which can be replicated almost indistinguishably with mung bean paste or melon. What’s more, because shark fins are cartilage and rigid protein fibers, they need to be cooked for hours, even a full day, to soften them enough to be edible. “If you cook my belt for 24 hours, it would be edible too,” Knights says.
Ironically, as conservationists, chefs, and even consumers themselves acknowledge, the flavor of shark fin soup—a dish that has ignited international controversy, spurred people to write countless letters to the United States Congress, and led to a massive awareness campaign—comes not from the fins but from the chicken broth used as the soup’s base.