New York recently became the latest state to
pass legislationbanning the possession and sale of shark fins, a move to protect the marine predators.
Shark hunting and finning — the practice of removing a shark’s fin and returning the maimed animal to the ocean to die —
have had a serious impact on shark populations worldwide, with an estimated 100 million sharks killed each year.
Sharks are hunted not for their meat, but for their chewy, tasteless fins, which have been a Chinese status symbol since the Ming Dynasty, when it was cooked specifically for emperors. Today they are commonly consumed at Chinese weddings, banquets, and business dinners.
Since sharks are in the news (thanks, Shark Week!), we decided to take a look back at celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s 2011 investigative report on the shark fin trade in London, Taiwan, and Costa Rica. You can watch the entire documentary here or on Amazon.
Shark fin soup is sold around the world as a delicacy and can easily cost upwards of $US100 a bowl. In China, it's considered a status symbol and is served at weddings and banquets.
But because of the negative associations with shark finning, restaurant owners and managers clam up when they're asked about it. This London restaurant owner wouldn't even let Gordon Ramsay and his cameras in to see the soup and talk to customers.
So in an effort to understand the shark fin demand, Ramsay traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, where shark fin soup is served everywhere from corner cafés to fine-dining establishments.
The grocery stores in Taiwan were chock full of shark fins -- hanging from the walls, stacked in boxes, and overflowing from crates. Some of the smaller fins easily cost $US300 a piece.
Ramsay even discovered a fin belonging to a Great White shark, a species extremely vulnerable to over-fishing and which cannot be traded internationally without special licenses.
Next, Ramsay journeyed to Cal Sheng on the south tip of Taiwan -- the biggest shark landing port in the country. He asked all the boats if he could come onboard and see their sharks or shark fins, but he was repeatedly denied entry, and told there was only tuna on board.
However, as Ramsay was leaving, he saw a baby scalloped hammerhead shark -- another of the most at-risk shark species -- dumped on a flatbed truck.
The next day, Ramsay had more luck -- he came to the dock as a boat was unloading its catches from the past month, and he saw the shark bodies being dragged off the boat. All the fins had been cut from their bodies.
However, there were bags upon bags full of fins -- seemingly more fins than there were shark bodies. The lopsided numbers were evidence of finning -- cutting the fins off a shark and throwing the body back into the ocean. When Ramsay asked a guard if anyone was regulating the illegal fin trade here, he was told no and asked to leave.
Near the dock in a seemingly residential neighbourhood, Ramsay spotted fins being dried on the rooftops of buildings.
Building after building had fins drying in the sun, and Ramsay began calling up to see if he could come up and see the operation.
But when he started making noise, the fins were quickly removed from view and liquid was tossed over the side of the building to scare him off.
Somehow, Ramsay managed to find a way into the building and up onto the roof where literally thousands of fins were being dried in the sun and by fans. 'Let's get out of here before we get shot,' Ramsay mutters as they're chased away.
He next traveled to Costa Rica, where the sharks are caught and brought to docking centres. The docks have been privatized so no one can see how many shark fins are being brought back by fishermen. It's not uncommon for barbed wire, tall fences, and watch towers to guard the perimeters.
But Ramsay was finally able to sneak into one facility through a friend of a friend, where he saw discarded shark bodies and fins everywhere.
He spoke with an activist named Randall, who told him one undercover operation recorded roughly 30 tons of only fins -- no bodies -- being brought in early in the morning to a nearby port.
To understand what life is like for shark fishermen, Ramsay went out on a long-line fishing boat where baby sharks were caught and killed for their fins.
Ramsay was not only shocked at how the sharks were slowly killed, but discovered that the crew had hacked a fin off a shark and threw the body it overboard. The crew told Ramsay it wasn't a big deal because 'it was only one fin.'
Back in Taiwan, Ramsay headed to the restaurant Imperial ,where he watched the chef make shark fin soup in order to understand the drive for fins. For a broth, the chef used chicken stock steeped with ham, and darkened with soy sauce.
The fins themselves are steamed, soaked, and washed for days before being infused with chicken broth until they become gelatinous.
When it's the right consistency, the fin is added to the boiling broth in a clay bowl, which is then brought out to the customer.
The dish is garnished with red wine vinegar, bamboo shoots, and coriander. The stringy shark fin is served whole, and customers break it apart with their chopsticks.
Ramsay tried the dish and said while the broth was extremely flavorful, the fin ultimately tasted like nothing: 'It's really bizarre, it actually tastes of nothing, almost like sort of plain glass noodles.'
Curious about why the customers were willing to pay so much for such a bland ingredient, Ramsay asked the restaurant's VIP diners what they thought of the dish. They told him they thought the soup was 'delicious' and perfect for special occasions. The over-fishing and cruelty to sharks did not appear to bother them.
Ultimately, Ramsay returned to London and convinced four leading London Chinese restaurants to stop serving shark fin soup. In New York City, trading shark fins will officially be illegal in the summer of 2014.
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