The Confederate flag. Donald Trump’s rants during campaign season. Shark fin soup. Not all traditions should be continued.

Shark fin soup originated during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), but it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the dish became popular amongst the aristocracy. The tradition fell out of favor in 1949, when the Communist Party came into power, but re-emerged as a trend during the last two decades. Shark fins are considered a luxury item and recently have become popular with China’s emerging middle class. Serving the soup can be a status symbol or a way to show respect, and it is commonly served at formal banquets, weddings, and other festive occasions.

Although the fin itself is tasteless, it’s valued for its texture, a critical component in Chinese cuisine. Since shipping vessels often have limited space and shark bodies aren't lucrative, sharks are often definned and discarded into the ocean to slowly die. Obtaining reliable information is challenging, but it’s estimated that between 26-73 million sharks are traded annually through fin markets. Several species risk extinction and their decline in population may have negative consequences for many marine ecosystems.

The consumption of shark fin soup could harm more than just the environment; it may have an adverse effect on human neurological health. A study published in the journal Marine Drugs found the neurotoxic amino acid β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) present in shark fins.

Deborah C. Mash is a researcher at the University of Miami and lead author of the study. She explains, “Sharks are apex predators that are long-lived. They accumulate mercury and BMAA which act synergistically as neurotoxins.”

The researchers tested fin clips from seven different shark species and detected elevated levels of BMAA in all of the samples. As Mash explains, the consumption of shark fin soup (as well as cartilage pills) could pose a significant health risk since BMAA is implicated in degenerative brain diseases including Lou Gehrig’s Disease and Alzheimer’s.

Although shark fin soup is considered a tradition, culture is not static and it can change from generation to generation. A recent report by WildAid, a San Francisco based environmental organization, suggests there may be a decline in consumption of shark fins. The study found that efforts such as media campaigns aimed at educating the public have had a positive impact. According to their survey, 85% of respondents reported they stopped consuming shark fin soup within the last three years; two-thirds of these respondents cited awareness campaigns as a factor in their decision. In 2012, the Chinese government banned shark fin soup from being served at state functions and nearly 28% said this was a primary factor in their decision. Another 43% suspected that the fins in soups sold in restaurants may be artificial. In addition, retail prices in China have decreased by 47% and 57% for wholesale over the past two years.

Sharks haven’t been saved entirely--internationally, shark fin trade continues legally and illegally and there are still challenges involved in making shark fin soup extinct.

Image Credits: harmonNicholas Wang