Culture is a wonderful thing; it gives us history and tradition. But at times, culture can be detrimental; it clouds our judgment and prevents us from changing.
A month ago I met up with a former Chinese-American colleague, now working for Humane Society International who pitched to me an environmental film I must make: Sharks are becoming endangered and shark finning is a big cause of it. Humane Society International is now actively doing a public education campaign in New York Chinatown and in the Chinese American communities across the country and Canada. Other than raising awareness, the goal is to encourage restaurants and markets to take shark fin dishes off the menu. I thought to myself: So what if the sharks are dying? What do we care? Why are we trying to save them? Aren’t sharks the man-eating monsters portrayed in the 1975 Spielberg film, Jaws?
Growing up in Chinatown, I know very well how important shark fin soup is part of Chinese cuisine custom. A rare and expensive delicacy dish, shark fin soup originated from south China in the Sung dynasty (AD 960). Shark fin soup became an established tradition in Ming dynasty (AD 1368) and since then the Chinese eat it during Chinese New Year celebrations, weddings, corporate functions, and other special occasions. If shark fin soup is not served at these important events, the host will look very cheap and is not giving face (respect) to his guests. In Chinese superstition, there is a famous saying: “nian nian you yu”, meaning “yearly prosperity”. Yu means ‘plentiful’ (in material wealth) and has the same tone as yu (fish). A fish dish is always served at Chinese New Year to welcome prosperity for the new year.
Despite my lack of concern for these ‘man-eating monsters’, my interest was ignited and I started reading everything about them. In February 2008 along with the Science Friday team, I attended the AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Boston. This year there was a symposium on sharks, “Will Too Few Jaws Take Too Big a Bite? The Importance of Sharks to Ocean Ecosystems”. I interviewed two of the experts, Lance Morgan, a conservationist at Marine Conservation Biology Institute and Julia Baum, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It is here that I really started to understand the importance of sharks and their role in the ocean ecosystem.
Sharks can be traced back to around 400 million years ago. They have existed 100 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared on land. Sharks are the world’s apex predator and are guardians of our oceans. They inhabit every ocean and play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. Situated at the top of the food chain, sharks keep everything in balance in the oceans. The removal of sharks lead to increases or declines in other species below them in the food chain that causes unpredictable consequences for ecosystems. This is a big problem for fishermen and millions of people who rely on the ocean for their food, when the fish we do want no longer exist.
Although they have managed to survive all sorts of mass extinctions for millions of years, sharks have never encountered a predator as powerful as us, the industrialized humans. Sharks are being overfished and many populations have declined by as much as 90%. Up to 100 million sharks are being killed worldwide, mostly for their fins. The demand for shark fin soup is at an all-time high. The rapid rise of the economy in mainland China has created an increased middle class who has disposable income to spend on luxury items. What was once eaten on rare occasions, now is common to eat shark fin soup. With the ever-increasing environmental problems in the world today - it is urgent to raise awareness, concern and self-restraint among consumers. Because ultimately it is no longer a Chinese issue, or an American issue - one environmental disaster affects us all.
Is it possible to change a tradition that has run down over a thousand year? Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws (1975) for which Spielberg film was based on, spent the last decade before his death in 2006 campaigning for wild life. He said this about sharks : “For, world-wide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors". If Mr. Benchley can have a new insight to this great creature and the ocean, I hope it is possible for the Chinese people, and us global citizens of our planet to change our views too.
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MA Shumin produced environmental videos for NPR Science Friday.
View her video on shark awareness/conservation: A Bowl of Trouble for Sharks