Rachel Vickerstaff is a permanent resident of HKSAR, where she lives with her husband and two wonderful daughters. In 2008, after watching the documentary Sharkwater, she determined to try to do something about the world’s shark fin crisis and became a co-founder of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation www.hksharkfoundation.org
Shark Fin: A question of culture?
When I moved to Hong Kong from the UK in 2004, I was lucky enough to befriend a local girl and her taxi driver father and I was delighted when they offered me a complimentary tour of Hong Kong’s Southside. The highlight of our trip was an early morning visit to Aberdeen’s fish market, followed by dim sum at Jumbo Floating restaurant. My host, ably assisted by the translation skills of his daughter, took great delight in explaining the different ingredients in each delicacy so that, by 11am, I had a fair idea of how food, and particularly seafood, is cherished by Hong Kongers!
We had a wonderful morning and I was touched both by the kind generosity of my host and by his obvious pride in his home city. I was even more thrilled when, shortly after our excursion, I received an invitation to his 60th birthday dinner, to be held in a Chinese restaurant in Sheung Wan.
My first dilemma was what gift to buy. I had been advised that money was the gift of choice in Hong Kong but, in my culture, giving cash can be sometimes seen as lazy. I wanted to show my gratitude by personally choosing a present that would somehow return his favour to me. So, given his passion for food, I decided to create a hamper of delicacies from my own country, including seafood specialties such as pickled cockles and the finest smoked salmon. He seemed somewhat amused by the gift but genuinely delighted and his daughter later informed me that much fun had been had over the tasting of the various items.
My second dilemma was how to handle the dinner menu. Having never been to a Chinese banquet, I asked a colleague what I should expect. A keen scuba diver who enjoyed interacting with underwater creatures, I was bemused by why anyone would want to eat a jellyfish, let alone a sea cucumber! When shark fin was mentioned, I was appalled. Having spent many hours swimming awe-struck alongside these magnificent creatures, I couldn’t imagine eating one. Then my colleague explained that some Westerners refused to eat shark fin because the shark was still alive when its fin was cut off and the body thrown back into the sea to die slowly. Cruel though this was, it also seemed to be incredibly wasteful – I remembered the chicken’s feet served at Jumbo and thought that, for a culture whose cuisine seemed to value utilizing every part of an animal, throwing the bulk of the shark away didn’t make sense. My colleague explained that only the shark’s fin was prized, that serving it in the soup was a sign of respect from my host to me as his guest and that refusing to eat it could cause offence. However, knowing how important sharks are to our marine ecosystems and how many dive guides were already complaining about declining local shark populations, I decided that I would find a way to tactfully decline the shark fin soup.
To avoid any offence from refusing it publically, I spoke privately with our host’s daughter before the dinner began and asked if she could arrange for the shark fin soup not to be served to me. Amazingly, she agreed. So I was dismayed when a bowl of shark fin soup was later placed in front of me and she said “Don’t worry, I asked the kitchen to sieve the fin out of the soup. The stock is the tasty part anyway!” Another guest on the table immediately asked why I wanted the fin taken out of my soup. When I explained my environmental concerns, he said “well, not eating the soup won’t bring the shark back to life, so why waste the soup?” “Because the more people publically refuse to eat shark fin, the less incentive there will be to fin sharks.” I replied, and “I’m just one person but, if you’ve ever been bitten by a mosquito, you know that it only takes one to start a reaction!” Everybody laughed and the tension was diffused but I was grateful that my host was on a different table!
A couple of years later, a Hong Kong based research study estimated that the fins of at least 38 million sharks were being traded each year – with Hong Kong being the world’s shark fin trade hub. Since then, scientists have confirmed declining shark populations and linked this trend to the unsustainable demand for shark fin. Most recently, a global anti-shark fin movement has gathered momentum, with some places banning shark fin entirely. Even the Chinese Government has announced that it will stop serving shark fin at official functions. The shark fin trade may find the pro-shark movement as irritating as a mosquito bite, but it is helping to create healthier oceans for everybody, regardless of culture.