Shark fin soup combines chicken broth, ginger, and various other ingredients to flavor the crunchy, but silky, fin. Some recipes call for mushrooms and bamboo shoots, as well as shredded chicken or MSG for taste. Though, before Chinese restaurants served the soup in giant white bowls, for many to share, only the elite dined on shark fin soup for centuries, with a reputation as a dish reserved for the royal class. A rarity amongst everyday meals, emperors indulged in the soup on special occasions, such as weddings or political events. Not much has changed today; China’s top leaders serve shark fin soup at important banquets. However, with the market reforms of the 1980s, spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) opened doors for foreign investors and China’s large labor force. Manufacturing grew rapidly, making way for rural migrants to take part in the transformative process of urban centers, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen. These cities became hubs for commerce and trade, creating economic opportunities for a rising middle class. Thus, with a greater disposable income, the mass working class sought a taste of the once exclusive shark fin delicacy. Able to afford the soup on special occasions, a growing demand pushed fishermen to commercialize the trade.
Chinese populations extend way beyond national boundaries. Large numbers live in the United States, Canada, and Europe, bringing cultural traditions with them. There are Chinatowns in countless cities, spanning from Los Angeles to London to Jakarta. Therefore, the same values and ambitions carry across to these widespread communities, with a high regard for shark fin’s symbolism being one of them. Shark fin soup consequently became a globally recognized delicacy. The frontiers of the fin trade grew in response to this demographic transformation, as well as the increasing prosperity of China’s middle class. By developing a market for shark fin, fishermen and sellers aimed to increase supply to fuel the requests of restaurants and consumers. Between 1991 and 1996, the price of shark fin doubled, though, with an estimated 100 million shark deaths each year.¹ The commercialization of the industry paved the way for new methods of attaining the product, including the highly controversial finning practice.
¹Spiegel, Jessica, “Even Jaws Deserves to Keep His Fins: Outlawing Shark Finning Throughout Global Waters, ” Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 24 (2000-2001), 412.