Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

Refusing to eat shark's fin at a Chinese dinner party

Chinese banquet

Having vowed to eat everything she was offered as part of her research into Chinese food culture, Fuchsia Dunlop recently found this aim came into conflict with her environmental conscience.

It was the height of the feast and our waitress laid a grand platter on the table.

In it was a mound of roast duck, ringed by translucent fronds of the finest shark's fin, glistening in a magnificent sauce.

It was a grand gesture on the part of my host, a wild extravagance, and a rich reference to Chinese culinary tradition.

I knew it would be astoundingly delicious.

The only problem for me was that I decided some time ago to stop eating shark's fin for environmental reasons.

I knew that the Chinese appetite for fins was helping to drive many shark species to extinction, and had heard reports of the nasty practice called "finning", where fishermen slash the valuable fins from live sharks, and throw their bodies away.

Environmental conscience

But I also knew that my host had served the dish to honour me and that a refusal to eat it might appear rude and ungrateful.

Hammerhead shark
Hammerhead sharks are endangered because of the quality of their fins

I considered disregarding my pledge and eating the fin. After all, it was already on the table, so the dirty deed was done, and I'd had nothing to do with it.

At least shark's fin was not illegal. It was not from an officially protected species.

And no-one outside that private room need ever know. I could count on the discretion of my friends.

Of course, I knew that any Westerner with a shred of environmental conscience would condemn me for eating such a thing.

According to the wildlife-trade monitoring network Traffic, a fifth of known shark species are under threat.

It is not only the Chinese who are responsible. Sharks are also killed as bycatch, especially during tuna fishing, and their meat is eaten in many countries, including my own.

But the booming Asian market for their fins is one cause of the devastation of shark stocks all over the world.

But I wondered, looking at the fronds lying appetisingly on the dish before me, was eating shark's fin any worse than eating cod or any other fish from a non-sustainable source - which, incidentally, meant most of the fish on sale at my local fishmonger?

Was it any worse, for that matter, than eating vegetables flown around the world in planes that belched out carbon dioxide, or any of the multitude of environmental crimes most of us commit on a daily basis, without even thinking about it?


The other guests at the banquet started eating the fin. None of them seemed to have any qualms.

In the end, politeness and diplomacy are often the enemies of action

Although a handful of Chinese celebrities have publicly renounced eating shark's fin, the controversy that surrounds it abroad has so far had little impact on Chinese attitudes.

Most people cannot afford to eat it anyway, and those that can tend to insist that it is part of their culture.

And it's very easy, I reflected, for Westerners to expect the Chinese to give up shark's fin - but are we going to give up our sushi, our tuna sandwiches and our cheap hamburgers for the sake of the environment?

With all eyes on me, I could not ignore the splendid dish on the table but, ever the diplomat, I did not want to ruin the evening by implying that my companions were environmental criminals, and that my host's generous gift was a moral outrage.

So I just ate the roast duck and discreetly ignored its golden halo of fin.

Inevitably my host noticed and, at the end of the evening, he asked me directly why I had not eaten the fin.

I was tempted to wriggle out of a confrontation. But I realised that, although my own avoidance of shark's fin might be a pathetic gesture, at least I could start a conversation with a bunch of Chinese chefs about the moral and environmental limits of consumption.

'Reckless behaviour'

So I told them what I knew about shark's fin and of my growing disquiet about eating endangered species in general.

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There was an awkward silence.

My dinner companions had not heard this kind of stuff before and certainly not from me, who they know as the Englishwoman who eats everything.

But when I had finished, to my surprise, they thanked me for my honesty and we ended up having a long conversation about food and sustainability.

It was an uncomfortable end to the evening. But it reminded me of an occasion when I was an undergraduate.

A friend of mine, an American, came to a lunch party and spent the whole time making rude remarks about my smoking.

He talked about cancer and coffins, wrinkles and emphysema. I was furious with him for spoiling the afternoon but he made me feel like such an idiot that I did give up smoking.

And I thought that, in the end, politeness and diplomacy are often the enemies of action.

Knowing what we do about the implications of eating not only shark's fin but many other kinds of seafood, we should be talking about it all the time, until we feel so uncomfortable that we change our reckless behaviour.

Talking might only be talking, but how can we do anything if we do not start by bringing the conversation to the table?

As well as working for the BBC, Fuchsia Dunlop is a leading authority on Chinese cuisine and the author of several books on the subject, such as Shark's Fin And Sichuan Pepper.

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I don't understand your position. The shark's dead, the fin is in front of you. If you don't eat it it will rot or someone else will. If you had saved that shark before it was finned there would be a point. Not eating it on your plate is a shallow empty gesture. Telling your hosts about your issues with it is good though.
Geez, Delhi, India

I was very happy & relieved that you choose NOT to eat the "shark fin." Just because other people are immune to the devastation of the species, I am happy that you took a responsible approach to the situation that you found yourself in. I don't agree with what a lot of folks over in the Asian countries eat. But I think awareness & education is the key to solving a huge problem we all have in the world today. Hooray for you for choosing to be responsible & caring .
Sandra McGee, WInthrop Harbor, IL. United States

Wow, that's your contribution to "the environment," not eating shark fin? And then you almost ate it because you didn't want to be rude? And you were almost okay with eating shark fin because "it was not from an officially protected species"? How would you know that?

Maybe, perhaps, you should look at your whole diet, all the animals you ingest, all the waste and destruction animal food production causes to the earth. You want to be environmental, then BE environmental. Don't just make it a word.
Carolyn Donovan, Boston, USA

Appreciate your concern, but I have to take exception to this:

"Of course, I knew that any Westerner with a shred of environmental conscience would condemn me for eating such a thing"

I respectfully disagree. You group all western earth-friendlies in the "tree hugger" or "flipper friend" category. Sure you could disgust me with some pictures of the atrocities of the mass-market meat industry. However, with that in mind, I still would rather be an omnivore as I believe is intended. Change for the Chinese society will come from within, let them do it, don't make it your cause de celeb!

Joe, Tampa, FL, USA

I love Chinese food and all my friends are Chinese. However as a Buddhist I find it hard to stay with the vegetarian diet. My friends respect my choices and we have a lot of laughs about me being the "egg man". That is white on the out side and yellow on the inside. If your friends don't see that then they are not truly Chinese.
jon richmond, burnaby /bc canada

Actually, the shark fin is superb, maybe we need less people...That would help the environment.
Scott Gabriel, Illinois, USA

People always believe there is black and white in every issue... and unfortunately their rarely is. Both sides of the argument are well argued.

Certainly it is important to respect other cultures. Culture is one of the many great gifts humanity has given to the world.

At the same time we live on this world as a part of nature, not a master of it and thus we must make ethical environmental decisions that allow for all species and ecosystems to have prosperous future.

That I believe you have addressed both issues as they should be.

Whilst I totally disagree with Scott on his attitude to eating shark's fin, I wholeheartedly agree with him on the number of people. Until we acknowledge that the world is already overpopulated we will solve very few environmental issues.
Edward Hind, Galway, Ireland

"I knew it would be astoundingly delicious"...

Ms Dunlop can't have been referring to the shark fin itself...I have eaten shark's fin dishes quite a few times in restaurants in Hong Kong and I have never detected any taste to the fin itself...the cartilage is largely tasteless and any taste to the dish must be due to the other ingredients in the dish.

There are a number of ingredients in Chinese cuisine (e.g. shark cartilage, sea cucumber, abalone) whose popularity can only be explained by their cost/rarity and certainly not their taste.

From both an environmental and a gastronomic perspective I hope that the Chinese get over this obsession.
Raf Sanchez, Hong Kong

Raf Sanchez of Hong Kong is correct. I have been told by some Asians that shark fin and birds nest are considered delicacies because they are hard to get hold of. At Chinese banquets I have seen people dumping cognac into their shark fin soup to "improve" (read: mask) the aroma and flavor.
Ishmael, Silicon Valley, US

I don't understand this Caucasian obsession with making a stand over shark's fin. Just because it is an Asian dish.

Let's see you kick up a fuss over foie gras, or even the inhumane way of slaughtering chickens and animals for meat.

We have to eat. Finish up the food on the table, waste not. That's what my parents taught me.
Robin Low, Singapore

Why feel that you are going to insult someone by not eating, its just as likely that you are being offended by being made to eat something you dont agree with. Do you get offended when a vegitarian friend comes to dinner? of course not you just work around it and accept the part. For my part i have russian family and have been offered proper caviar on several occasions and always turned it down due to concience and explained every time that i dont judge them its just the way i feel and everyone is always cool with it.
jamie ferguson, amsterdam, the netherlands

Maybe she should also avoid anything that contains soybeans -massive deforestation is taking place all over South America to support the booming agro-business of soy, which is mostly exported to China. The list of environmentally taboo foodstuffs could go on forever... it encompasses practically everything we eat.
Mike Singe, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Reading other comments, I was surprised by how many people felt that it would have been OK for the author to betray her values, simply because the shark was already dead, the fin had no taste, or because it is presumptuous to try to change another culture. Clearly, the author is not attacking Chinese culture or insisting that anyone else share her individual value system. She merely stood up, politely, for what she felt was right. Though her stance couldn't save any of the sharks served up at the feast, her integrity and respect for cultural difference allowed others to hear her perspective with an open mind, possibly reducing the future market for sharks, saving a few down the road.

It is not just about environmentalism. This is the same process whereby racism, sexism, poverty, and other social evils become recognized as unacceptable: a few courageous people stand up for their beliefs, encouraging others to think about the issue and verbalize their own conclusions.

And by the way, I am an omnivore. But I oppose wasteful consumption and inhumane slaughter where alternative methods or choices are possible. Leaving any animal to die an unnecessarily slow and painful death is indefensible, particularly if the product isn't even tasty or nutritious. But before you condemn people for such actions, you need to see it from their perspective and help them see it from yours.
Martha, Salt Point, NY, USA


Not all shark fins are bad.

In Kiribati, one of the poorest countries, subsistence fisherman eat shark, eat the skin, and collect liver oil.

Please help us to certify our fins as being ok for eating, this is no difference than "Pig's Feet" bottles in your local market. Yes, we use the shark like you use pigs.

These fisherman use the little money they get for their families and children's school fees.

One any given day there are about 400 fisherman in one man paddling canoes, fishing for food.

Your Country is sinking out nation from green house gasses, now you are going to stop one of our only incomes.
Chuck Corbett, Kiribati

Great article. Author confronted. Major issue with sensitive and honorable tact. geraldhood, mill valley. USA

I am ethinically Chinese but I am what the other Chinese call a "banana"- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. English is my first language, I work in a prestigious department in a Big 4 firm in London. I am Chinese illiterate and I do not have many Chinese friends. My husband is a very white potato eating Yorkshireman.

No matter how "English" I have become, (I'm even a registered volunteer with the WWF) I found that my Chinese food genes go beyond the simple state of mind. The need of Chinese foods and delicacies is simply a part of me, without which I cannot function.

As long as there are Chinese in the world, shark fins will be eaten. So far, they are not yet endangered. We can compromise. If countries work together to limit the number of shark catches, then the Chinese will still get the fins (albeit at a higher price) and the population of sharks can be maintained.

Unfortunately for the bears and other endangered species, it may be too late for them. It is however, not too late for the sharks.
Emily Tai, London, England

Many sharks 'facing extinction'
25 Jun 09 |  Science & Environment
Palau pioneers 'shark sanctuary'
25 Sep 09 |  Science & Environment


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