Posted by: letsharkslive | January 22, 2010

BBC Sharks Fin Commentary…Not what you might think…

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.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130 GMT. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast
Listen on BBC iPlayer Story by story at the programme website

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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: