US President Donald Trump sat down for a seven-course state dinner featuring shark fin soup while visiting Vietnam Nov. 12, according to Newsweek.
A local delicacy, shark fin soup also happens to be one of the most controversial meals in the world.
That’s because demand for the soup has brought some shark species close to extinction. In the past several decades, some shark populations have declined by an estimated 95% as part of a global annual catch of up to 100 million sharks.
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It’s unknown if Trump is familiar with the significance of the meal, but the fact that it was served at an international state dinner shows that the effort to protect sharks has a long way to go.
The Demand for Shark Fin Soup
Shark fin soup is primarily consumed in China and Vietnam, where it has historically been limited to the wealthy for special events such as banquets and weddings.
As the Chinese economy boomed over the past several decades, the dish became available to a wider portion of the public as a symbol of prestige, and consumption of shark fin soup more than doubled between 1985 and 2001.
To meet this demand, the hunt for sharks exploded around the world. Sharks take a long time to mature and produce few offspring, according to the World Wildlife Fund. As a result, overfishing can rapidly deplete their numbers.
And that’s what has happened. The Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that a third of all shark species are now threatened.
Oftentimes, sharks are captured by illegal fishing vessels, their fins are hacked off and the animals are thrown back in the water where they die because they can’t survive without their fins.
Recently, a Chinese fishing crew was captured off the coast of Ecuador for trespassing in protected waters. The boat was found to have more than 6,600 sharks on board.
As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance of food chains around the world and their rapid decline could disrupt marine ecosystems.
The Movement to Protect Sharks
In the past decade, a movement has emerged to end the consumption of shark fin soup, spurred by growing awareness of the harm it causes sharks.
The first step of the campaign involved correcting misconceptions surrounding the dish.
According to a survey conducted by WildAid, a group that works to protect sharks, 75% of Chinese respondents didn’t know the meat in the soup came from sharks because it’s referred to as “fish wing soup” in Mandarin, and 19% thought shark fins regenerated. Few of the respondents were aware that shark populations were rapidly declining around the world.
A massive public information campaign was subsequently launched by various groups. WildAid’s campaign involved famed basketball player Yao Ming as the spokesmen.
In a commercial that played during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the stark consequences of shark fin soup were laid bare. Since then, awareness has skyrocketed and WildAid estimates that shark fin soup consumption has declined by 50-70% in the country.
Globally, 21 countries including the US have bans or restrictions on shark finning. Vietnam has not enacted policies that restrict shark finning or the consumption of shark fin soup.
Recently, the UN approved a proposal to improve protections for six migratory shark species, including the whale shark, which is a primary target for shark fin soup producers.
Yet demand in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere remains high enough to pose an existential threat to sharks.
"This careless act demonstrates that @POTUS does not understand the plight of endangered species worldwide. Shark finning has led to an extinction crisis for many species and horrible death for those sharks finned." - IFAW President, CEO @AzzedineTDownes. https://t.co/wMoQ0q603R— IFAW (@action4ifaw) November 14, 2017
Ending the practice of shark finning will require stronger enforcement mechanisms, especially from the two major markets for shark fin soup — Vietnam and China.
Maybe Vietnam can learn a lesson from China and start by banning shark fin soup at state events.
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