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When the world’s most famous chef, Gordon Ramsay, tried out shark fin soup for the first time at one of Taipei’s glitziest restaurants, as usual he did not mince any words: “It almost tastes of nothing, like plain glass noodles.”

In the documentary he hosted on the subject called Shark Bait, the TV star is shown watching footage of an endangered hammerhead shark having its fins hacked off while thrashing around on the deck of a blood-slicked boat before being thrown back into the sea to bleed to death. He described it as “without doubt the worst act of animal cruelty I’ve ever seen.”

Ramsay’s documentary has caused another wave in what has become a globe-spanning sea change in shark conservation. It’s a grave issue. The ravenous appetite of Chinese consumers for shark fin soup has driven many species to the brink of extinction. Every year, some 100 million sharks are finned and left for dead. To stop this barbaric practice, Fin Free’s Thailand chapter has teamed up with some of the leading hotel groups in the nation, like Cape and Kantary. To get onboard, the hotels must promise to remove shark fin soup from their menus.

Launched for Chinese New Year of 2013, when the demand for the soup crests, the program has surged in popularity with 100 hotels and five restaurants taking the pledge. For them it’s a readymade CSR program that brings an element of goodwill with it. In return, Fin Free lists these do-gooders on their website. And for those who believe in the virtues of making Buddhist merit, the supporters receive a karmic kickback to boot.

As Seamas McCaffrey, the former campaign coordinator for the Thailand chapter, explained it, “The Fin Free brand started with a Canadian NGO called United Conservationists around 2009. I was leading this project for Freeland [a Bangkok-based NGO dealing with wildlife conservation and human trafficking issues] and we launched the project with them and two other groups.”

For the young Australian and his comrades, this is a crusade with no cash incentives. All are volunteers. Seamas also pointed out how the NGO has harnessed the radiance of stars to shine the media spotlight on these dark issues. Well on her way to becoming a foodie celebrity, Duongporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava is the chef and co-owner of Bo.Ian restaurant in Bangkok which has won over the hearts and stomachs of judges and diners the world over. She is also a Fin Free Thailand Ambassador who has spoken out about the potentially catastrophic effects of losing one of the ocean’s top-tier predators.

“Fewer sharks does not mean more fish—the killing of sharks destabilizes one of our most important food sources and is causing great imbalance to our oceans’ fragile ecosystems,” she said.

Bo is right. According to a recent report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), “Healthy shark populations may aid the recovery of coral reefs whose futures are threatened throughout the globe.”

After rainforests, coral reefs are the second most productive eco-systems on earth; they nurture the marine creatures that nourish humankind. And when a link on that food chain is snapped, as with the possible extinction of the shark, the herbivorous creatures like parrotfish will multiply a million-fold and destroy the reefs. Or so goes one doomsday scenario.

Far from a tonic, shark fin soup, once consumed by Chinese emperors some 2,000 years ago and still seen as a status symbol because of its high price, can be injurious to human health. This is because of the high levels of mercury—a lethal heavy metal polluting waterways—sometimes found in it, notes one study mentioned on the Fin Free website.

As Bo said, “The ruthless extermination of a species for a luxury food lacking nutritional value is simply unjustifiable.” Another point in their favour is that many shark species, Seamas explained, are scavengers. “They’re like the janitors and vultures of the underwater world. They clean up the dead creatures to keep the ocean clean.”

Sharks, unfortunately, are not going to win any positive PR campaigns, or inspire any future Disney films with their cuteness. As Seamas said, “The joke among conservationists is that you would have to put panda masks on sharks to get the general public onboard with these campaigns.”

For snorkelers and divers who like to get back to our genetic roots as sea creatures who first crawled ashore many millennia ago, the true value and lure of sharks is in their streamlined beauty and sleek grace (like reef sharks), or for their freak-show weirdness factor (like hammerheads and the docile leopard sharks often seen in Thailand lazing on the seabed), or for their enormity (like whale sharks).

The latter species, which can grow to the size of a city bus, are genial, plankton-gobbling goliaths. Take a survey of any group of divers about their most memorable plunges into the aquatic abyss and chances are they will mention encounters with whale sharks—or at least they used to. Now, with sightings of the world’s biggest fish dipping amid reports surfacing of a factory in China that butchers hundreds of them every year, tourism is also taking a hit.

In what is another important another sea change in the conservation of sharks and manta rays, which are now being hunted for their gill rakers (a new culinary trend in China) marine scientists are estimating the millions of dollars in revenue streams that these creatures create for tourism the world over, not to mention all the jobs.

Fin Free is hoping that their collaborations with hotel chains like Cape and Kantary will create a ripple effect among visitors. Getting shark fin soup off the menu is a good starting point.

The fins are ‘tasteless’ in more ways than one. As Gordon Ramsay said upon tasting the soup for the first time in Taipei, “The broth is delicious but it could have anything in there. It could have sweet corn in there, duck, pork belly. The one item spoiling that [broth] is the shark fin.”


By Jim Algie