On Friday, July 26, the state of New York became the eighth U.S. state to ban the sale of shark fins in an effort to protect the world's sharks. Last May, a bill to ban shark fin trade in Texas died in the Senate, but due to increasing awareness about the cruelty of shark finning as well as the expense of making the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, many Texas restaurants are taking shark fin soup off their menus.
Shark fin soup, often served at Chinese weddings and banquets as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, is controversial due to the often inhumane way in which shark fins are obtained. Because the fins are the most useful part of the shark, hunters will catch a shark, cut off all its fins, then release it back into the ocean still alive, where, unable to move, it will die a slow, painful death from blood loss, suffocation or starvation. Releasing the sharks frees up space on the fishing vessels for more fins.
Shark finning is one reason for the rapid decline in shark populations. Sharks are slow to mature and do not reproduce as often or have as many young as other sea creatures, so killing sharks can have a large impact on the population. Other people are less concerned with the environmental impact of shark finning and take greater issue with the morality of cutting off an animal's limbs and leaving it to die.
The U.S. protects sharks from finning with the Shark Conservation Act (introduced by John Kerry in 2009), which prohibits any vessels from carrying more shark fins than carcasses. Additionally, all sharks must be brought to port with their fins still attached. Several states have outlawed the sale or trade of shark fins entirely, as New York did last week, but in Texas, shark fin soup is still legal, for now. And it's available right here in Houston.
The Humane Society of the United States' Texas director, Katie Jarl, has been very outspoken about the organization's disapproval of the shark fin trade in Texas, and she worked on the bill to ban the sale and trade of shark fins in Texas.
"The fins caught off the Gulf Coast aren't going directly into local Chinese restaurants," Jarl explains. "What fishermen are doing is bagging up the fins and shipping them internationally, most likely to China, where they've already overfished sharks. In Texas, by allowing the sale and trade of shark fins, we are directly contributing to the global decimation of sharks worldwide."
Jarl also noted that when the failed bill was first proposed, not a single restaurant or supplier came out in opposition to it. Even the owners of Chinese restaurants and catering companies who are the usual producers of shark fin soup were mum on the subject. She said Landry's voiced its approval of the bill, telling her it understands the seafood business depends upon maintaining a balanced ecosystem, and sharks are an important part of that.
The Humane Society was able to provide us with a list of Texas restaurants that still serve shark fin soup, though Jarl notes that many restaurants won't admit to it, even though it's still completely legal in Texas. The dish has become so taboo that no one wants to talk about it. We did some sleuthing of our own and found some additional restaurants that continue to prepare the controversial dish. Some places we called admitted that customers rarely order the expensive soup, so they've considered removing it from the menu. For now, though, it seems shark fin soup is here to stay.
Here's where to find it:
Ocean Palace Restaurant 11215 Bellaire 281-988-8898
According to the person we spoke to, shark fin soup is mainly ordered by the owner for events, but the restaurant keeps shark fins in stock just in case. The soup costs $68 for a party of five and $130 for a party of eight to ten.
Arco Seafood Restaurant 9896 Bellaire 713-774-2888
The hostess at Arco told me Chinese people order shark fin soup because it's traditional, but the restaurant does sometimes hear from people who think serving shark fin soup is wrong.
Fung's Kitchen 7320 Southwest Freeway 713-779-2288
When asked about shark fin soup, the manager at Fung's said, "We still have some customers who ask for it, so to do business, we must carry a little. If it's not allowed here, we'll stop carrying it, but until then, we'll keep carrying it."
Vinh Hoa Restaurant 9600 Bellaire 713-271-3122
The Humane Society's list notes that Vinh Hoa is suspected of serving shark fin soup, and when I called and asked, a manager was able to confirm to me that they do indeed have shark fin soup on the menu. He said not many people order it because it's so expensive.
Kim Son Banquets and Catering 2001 Jefferson 713-222-2461
Again, the Humane Society lists Kim Son as suspected of serving shark fin soup, and the person who answered the phone at the restaurant told me it was on the menu. A check of the menu shows that a bowl of crab meat and shark fin soup sells for $5.50, which seems low for the expensive delicacy, so they might serve imitation shark fin.
Haicang Seafood Restaurant 11768 Bellaire 281-564-4288
Haicang confirmed they do sell shark fin soup, but would not comment further.
Ichiban Grill Super Buffet 12983 Bellaire 281-568-8883
Ichiban also confirmed that shark fin soup is on the menu, but it's only available at dinner, so lunch crowds are out of (or in?) luck.
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Golden Palace was on a different list of shark fin soup providers, but when I called them, they told me it's no longer offered. They said it's too expensive and a lot of people didn't order it. They also said they don't think most people cared when shark fin soup was taken off the menu.
So now that you know where to get shark fin soup (should you want it), know this: Shark fins don't add any flavor to the soup. They're added for the texture, which has been described as chewy and sinewy and a bit gelatinous. Much like you'd expect cartilage to feel when you chomp down on it. The flavor comes from the soup base itself, so it seems, at least to me, that something other than shark fins could be used to achieve an interesting texture.
Of course, some sharks seem to like the taste of human limbs, so maybe it's only fair. Right?...right?