Sharks – predator or prey? [Guest writers]

By Sim Yan Ling and Agatha Oei (Millennia Institute)


Many Singaporeans would have celebrated the Chinese New Year festive season by gathering with family and friends, and digging into plenty of festive goodies. For some, the festive feasting will include the occasional shark fin soup.

Sharks are the lords of the sea. They are one of the largest predators found in the ocean and have been in existence since 420 million years ago. Today, there are more than 470 species of sharks and more than 200 of these sharks are considered endangered species.

Hunters, or hunted?

People who have watched shark-attack movies like Jaws might perceive sharks as ferocious creatures that gobble up hapless humans who are foolish enough to waddle in dangerous waters.  Many of us are thus falsely led into believing this modern mythos.

The truth is, sharks are non-aggressive to humans and will maintain their distance from us.  Most attacks by sharks are due to them mistaking a human for their natural prey, the seal.

Unbeknownst to many, sharks actually play a crucial role in sustaining our ecosystem and are excellent indicators of a good ecosystem.  They help keep our oceans clean and healthy by eating efficiently, eliminating the old and the weak, hence keeping the population of fish in check.  An absence of sharks from the ocean can cause the entire ecosystem to spiral out of control.

Despite their importance in our ecosystem, the population of sharks is rapidly declining. The reason? High demand for shark fin.

Baby sharks

The (cooking) pan is mightier than the sword

Shark fin soup has been a traditional dish among the Chinese since the Ming dynasty and is consumed by the rich.  While you may have heard that consuming shark fin soup will bring about plenty of health benefits, these claims are mostly unfounded.  In fact, studies have even shown that the consumption of shark fins is detrimental to our health!

Shark fins contain high levels of mercury due to bioaccumulation (which occurs when sharks consume high quantities of fish, causing these toxins to accumulate in its body).  Mercury is a poisonous substance and causes mercury poisoning when high levels are consumed.

According to the United States Environmental protection agency, women and children should avoid it as much as possible.  Affected children may show symptoms like red cheeks, nose and lips, loss of hair, teeth, and nails, transient rashes, hypotonia (muscle weakness), and increased sensitivity to light.  Other symptoms may include kidney dysfunction (e.g. Fanconi syndrome) or neuropsychiatric symptoms such as emotional lability (a neurologic disorder characterised by involuntary crying or uncontrollable episodes of crying and/or laughing, or other emotional displays), memory impairment, and insomnia.

You may think that list of ends here, but there is more.  Another recent study made found that 79% of shark fins tested contained high-levels of Beta-Methylamino- L-alanine (BMAA),  a dangerous neurotoxin linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases.

We are also aghast to read that the levels of Arsenic contamination in one single shark fin may exceed China’s national guideline for marine products by 13 to 32 times!  Additionally, 10% of all dried seafood items in Hong Kong, mostly shark fins, contain impurities such as hydrogen peroxide and formaldehyde, which are also considered hazardous to human health.

The alternative to shark fin soup

Still, if you don’t want this traditional delicacy gone from the menus of weddings and festive celebrations, gastronomically satisfying alternatives abound.

Vegetarian shark fin soup
The vegetarian shark fin soup that my family had for our Chinese New Year reunion dinner. Tasty, without the accompanying side effects.

Shark fins are actually tasteless and the flavour really comes from the broth.  So instead of authentic shark fin, we can seek out other alternatives such as a vegetarian version made from vermicelli and fungus (the type that is sold at pasar malam).  According to reviews by foodies, while this imitated version is no less tasty than its original counterpart, it is way more affordable too.  We can also make our own version using shredded chicken or pork meat, mushrooms and glass noodles.

If you are searching for a more expensive dish to replace the shark fin soup (it’s all about ‘face’), fish maw soup is also considered fittingly lavish enough to add a touch of luxury to the menu without being seen as being stingy.

Start the new year with a change for the better. Choose an ecologically and economically more viable alternative to replace the shark fin soup. And get another reason to celebrate the season.

Yan Ling and Agatha are students from Millennia Institute and they write for MI Wired, an online platform for students to showcase their writing. Both are advocates of social and environmental causes.

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