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Could Farming Sustainable Tilapia Help Cut the Demand for Shark Fin Soup?

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The unsustainable demand for the Chinese delicacy known as shark fin soup is directly responsible for the slaughter of more than 70 million sharks every year. In a process known as finning, the sharks are caught, pulled onto boats, stripped of their valuable fins and dumped back into the ocean where they slowly and painfully drown. As a result of this cruel practice, some shark species have seen population declines of 99 percent in the past 10 years.

To help curb the impact of shark fin soup, California just banned the sale of shark fins, and the city of Toronto may soon follow suit. Other states and municipalities have already passed their own bans or are discussing them.

But one man thinks there's another way to curb the demand for shark fin soup: Replace it with an alternative.

Wang Yi-feng, general manager of the Kouhu Fisheries Cooperative in Taiwan, tells Taiwan Today that he is selling farmed tilapia fins as an alternative to shark fins. The tail fins "of Taiwan tilapia are a perfect stand-in for shark fins because they have the same appearance and texture," he told the paper. Taiwan tilapia are a hybrid of two fish from Singapore, Oreochromis mossambicus and Oreochromis niloticus niloticus.

Wang's company shreds the tilapia fins and sells them for $120 per kilogram, reportedly about a quarter the price fetched by shark fins. Because both types of fin are just cartilage, they are tasteless, but the tilapia mimics the familiar consistency of shark fins. He says he is shipping one ton of fins per month to restaurants in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, and that his sustainable farmed fish "guarantees stable supplies of the delicacy, which could prevent sharks from being wiped out."

So is faux shark fin a good replacement for the real thing? "I'm all for it," says Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a nongovernmental organization that fights illegal wildlife trade. Tilapia is a "perfectly good, sustainable and healthier substitute," he says.

But replacing the shark fin doesn't address the actual issue. "It's really about privilege and expense," Knights says. Shark fin soup is a luxury item that symbolizes wealth, and demand for the delicacy has risen as the Chinese economy has grown. Replacing shark fins with a less expensive alternative would not fulfill the Chinese cultural need to display prosperity, although a substitute might serve as a mark of status: "I would strongly suggest the better alternative is an expensive bottle of wine," he says. "It's really more about perception, the notion of hosts having spent a lot of money on their guests." A pricey bottle of French wine on the banquet table would accomplish that and serve the same role as shark fin soup.

In fact, Knights says that some Chinese weddings and business gatherings are already ordering wine instead of shark fin soup.

Whether it's shredded tilapia or expensive French champagne, finding a way to replace shark fin soup is essential. Let's hope each idea takes off.

Photo: Shark fin soup by Chee Hong via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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