Thursday, 23 June 2011

One Sick Fish

When I was with Off The Edge, we received mail from a reader who noted the little "Consumer Price Index" slot we gave to Hotel Nikko, advertising its Chinese restaurant's Superior Shark's Fin with Golden Broth and Gold Foil (OTE, Jan 2009).

He went on to express "surprise" that "one of the more enlightened publications in Malaysia" would promote, from the vibes I got, something so decadent and environmentally damaging as sharks fin soup. Shock! Horror!

So he suggested that perhaps we should've added a disclaimer of some kind, which he helpfully provided. The chief felt he had a point, so he published the "disclaimer" in full in the next issue.

Eating shark-fin soup seriously threatens the survival of sharks. More than one hundred million sharks are killed each year ... The irony is while the shark-fin itself is tasteless ... it actually contains a high concentration of toxic mercury (causes nervous system deterioration, male infertility) since [the shark] is the apex predator in the sea and accumulates all the mercury from the fishes in consumes during its long life. Have a healthy Chinese New Year.

I had different thoughts.

The reader might have done his homework and meant well, but to me he was a complete tyro. The point was to promote the dish, and tacking his kind of "disclaimer" to the slot would be the equivalent of "save the sharks, shut down some restaurants". The "male infertility" thing was definitely pinpoint targeting. Tact, dude.

And did he really feel people who'd buy OTE would be so woefully uninformed about shark's fin? As a sometimes-reader myself, I'd be offended - and I was. And still am.

Given the choice, I wouldn't order it. It's expensive, wasteful (if it came from finning) and the fin fibres themselves have as much nutrition as your hair or fingernails. But when a bowl of Jaws' flipper-fibres is put in front of me, I'm very likely to eat it. Because by the time the shark goes into the bowl, it is already too late.

I like sharks. It is one sick fish. While the raptors were busy growing the parts that would help them fly, sharks were already masters of their realm. Around this time was the reign of a personal favourite: carcharocles megalodon, the bus-sized, whale-eating terror of the deep.

The shark evolved to effectively hunt and kill slow, weak and stupid marine life, so that only the strong remain and make stronger, smarter offspring - kind of like what Simon, Randy, et al do on American Idol. On lean days, their keen senses are used to look for dead or dying prey species and eat that, keeping the seas relatively clean and sanitised.

However, as Reader so helpfully pointed out, in this day and age countless numbers of sharks across the spectrum of species are killed each year. And as apex predators of the deep, they accumulate all sorts of toxic substances in their bodies as they hunt and eat inside increasingly polluted oceans, much like whales.

Though it's been established that many species such as the great white mature slowly and rarely reproduce, science still knows so little about the shark's life cycles. The scale of the slaughter is such that the impact of one dead shark can send big ripples across an ecosystem.

And if we do wipe out the sharks, are we willing to take their place in the ecosystem, hunting and cleaning up the oceans of dead, rotting whales and such?

But it didn't used to be like this. Or was it, except on a smaller, more sustainable scale?

Which is why I'm interested in what this book has to say about sharks and our relationships with them. They could have done away with the simulated gill slits on the cover, though. And did they have to call it Demon Fish?

In this book, the author Juliet Eilperin goes round the world to investigate how different individuals and cultures relate to the shark, one of nature's most awesome creatures. Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post, where she writes about science, policy, and politics in areas ranging from climate change to oceans.

Ah, that's one sick book. Too bad it comes with a sick price tag. The paperback can't come soon enough.


  1. Ironically, the warnings about mercury are not likely to deter connoisseurs. When liquid mercury was first mined, royals actually drank it, calling it the elixir of life. And some people still do, irrespective of its actual effects. This is especially true of the Chinese.

    So putting a disclaimer and telling them shark's fin contains heavy doses mercury will actually encourage them, not deter them. That's how entrenched the culture of eating rare animals is. :)

  2. Mercury as an elixir of life? Even today? That's news. And that's not connoisseurship - that's (mostly) wilful stupidity.

    Now they're saying that one of the earliest and most famous victims of mercury poisoning was Qin Shi Huang, who wanted to live forever. He does now, but not because of mercury-based "elixirs of life".


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