Just what is it about tucking into bowls of bland, rubbery cartilage in broth that continues to inspire such demand? Simply put: few things suggest the whiff of money like shark fin soup in Chinese culture. This marker of class dates to imperial times. With the explosion of the middle class, demand has surged.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Signing a deal and want to impress a client? Having a wedding and want to impress guests? Throwing an elaborate birthday bash and want to show your friends you’ve made it? Just add shark fin soup to the menu. Given how entrenched this association between shark fins and affluence has become, the practice has become a habitual aspect of life in Chinese culture. A big-name banquet without shark fin soup is almost perceived as a slight to guests.
The epicenter of shark fin consumption is Hong Kong. Estimates suggest around half of the fins from the 26-73 million sharks traded annually pass through Hong Kong. Dr. Shelley Clarke, a Japan-based marine biologist, recalls that she crunched some numbers several years ago and found that “the global shark fin trade was worth $400 to $550 million U.S. per year, but that estimate is based on the retail value and the value of the raw material is obviously much less.”
And these numbers are conservative, Goodsell notes. “It’s very commonplace. Most Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong serve it in every district,” Alex Hofford, a Hong Kong-based photojournalist and shark conservationist, says in an interview with The Diplomat. “You can get a HK$50 tea set with shark fin soup in some restaurants.”
He continues, “Around this time of year there are many days with perfect drying weather—33 degrees, sunny. If you walk through Sheung Wan right now you’d be likely to see loads of fins lined up to dry.”
Sheung Wan is a district promoted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board as a dried seafood mecca, Hofford explains. “You can see all kinds of fish drying down there. It’s a very smelly place” – and complicated.
Hofford says that a 1 kilogram bag of juvenile shark fins goes for around 800 HK dollars (roughly $100). “It’s quite complicated how they price it though. It depends on all kinds of factors like freshness, market fluctuations, timing of day, stock on hand. It’s very byzantine. For these reasons it’s very hard to compile reliable data. It’s similar to real estate or stocks.”
He adds, “Fins are increasing in value because they’re becoming increasingly harder to come by…When oil prices surged, fishermen couldn’t afford gas needed to go out. This made them even more of a hot commodity. They hoarded them. It’s a very complex market.”