Typically, a gourmet meal at the Empress of China starts with a bowl of shark fin soup. It's not cheap -- two small bowls go for $24. But that's actually a bargain price. Other local restaurants charge up to $80 per bowl.
The soup is a thick broth, with pieces of pale yellow fin of varying texture -- gelatinous, stringy, pulpy. At the chef's discretion, it can be enhanced with small pieces of ham or chicken. The taste is fishy, and lingers in the mouth.
Shark fin soup was once reserved for special occasions, like Chinese New Year, but today the delicacy is a daily staple on most Chinatown restaurant menus, and raw fins are available year-round in local shops for those who want to make their own.
As with any animal consumed in leisure, it's easy to forget that this culinary symbol of affluence is the last step in a process that begins with the death of a living creature. In this case, a brutal, bloody demise which occurs regularly on the high seas.
Halfway through a month-long expedition looking for swordfish, a longliner boat sits motionless somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. As morning breaks, the crew slowly reels in 40 miles of cable. Baited hooks are attached every 200 feet to the line, which has been "soaking," or floating just under the surface, since the night before.
As the fishing crew pulls in the line, it finds some swordfish, and more of what is called bycatch -- unwanted creatures of the sea like sea birds, turtles, and sharks that have also hit on the bait. The sharks are usually blue sharks, occasionally mako, thresher, or hammerhead.
To the fishermen, the sharks are trash. Their meat isn't worth anything, because the animal urinates through its skin, and it's difficult to clean. Only one part of the shark is worth saving at all -- the fins that will end up as part of a pricey bowl of soup in a Chinatown restaurant.
If the shark found on the line is still alive, the crew carefully drags it on deck, then kills it by severing its spinal column. The fins are hacked off, and the carcass is tossed overboard for its bloody spiral to the ocean floor. The precious fins are either hung up to dry, or tossed on ice for the trip back home. A boat captain usually gives the fins to the crew as a bonus. Back in port, shark fins can bring up to $40 a pound.
Variations of this practice have gone on for decades, but in the past few years, a skyrocketing demand for shark fin soup has thrust shark finning to the forefront of media attention. Magazines, Web sites, and television programs decry the brutal slaughter of innocent sharks. Divers photograph shark carcasses on the ocean floor. Politicians, marine experts, and fishermen argue over the legalities of finning. Criminal gangs fight for shark fin turf in London. Last year in Honolulu, one shark fin dealer was convicted for hiring a hit man to kill his rival.
As Asian societies become more affluent, people want to enjoy the expensive shark fin soup more than once a year. There's little market for soup among non-Asians, but a healthy Asian economy has driven up demand. Last year, over 6 million sharks were snagged as bycatch in the world's oceans, yielding nearly 9 million pounds of fins. Shark fins now feed a global industry estimated at over $1 billion a year, an increase of approximately 1,000 percent in the past 10 years.
Shark fin soup may also contain pieces of chicken or pork.
The increase in shark finning fuels outrage from environmentalists and marine experts, because sharks do not reproduce as quickly as other fish. Because of intense overfishing for swordfish and tuna, shark populations are shrinking, in some areas by 90 percent over the last 30 years.
If the U.S. government and environmentalists get their way, this drastic decline will at least soon be slowed. Finning has already been banned on the East Coast of the United States, and off the California coast. Last month, California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham introduced legislation to make shark finning completely illegal in all U.S. waters.
But while the industry agrees that the shark populations should be managed, a small group of fishermen insists that there is no danger of long-term, permanent damage to the species. Most fins are taken from blue sharks, these fishermen argue, and the ocean is full of enough blue sharks to satisfy the demand for fins without threatening the species' survival.
At the moment, Hawaii is the only fishing territory left in the U.S. where finning remains completely legal, and local fishermen plan to keep it that way. Acknowledged as a hotbed of shark finning, Hawaii currently refuses to cooperate with any efforts for a U.S.
And for all the uproar, it's unlikely that shark finning will ever be outlawed anytime soon. Cultural traditions, and the public taste for shark fin soup, cannot simply be legislated away. Besides, it's hard to generate sympathy for sharks.
To ancient cultures, the shark was a creature from the darkest depths of hell. No other animal in the ocean epitomized evil as much as this sleek fish that announced its arrival with a telltale dorsal fin, clamped onto its prey, and shook it until the meat tore loose.
We eventually figured out how to kill the shark before it killed us. And as with other dangerous animals like tigers and rhinos, we attached great significance to the act of removing part of the shark and ingesting it. The Chinese have a word for this belief -- "jinbu" -- that basically means wild is better than captive. If we ingest part of a powerful animal, we also ingest its power, and usually insist that it acts as an aphrodisiac. Rhino horns and tiger parts are reputed to increase sexual potency, and so it is believed with shark fins.