As beloved as Yao Ming is to Houstonians, it's no match for the affection held for him in China. And the former Rockets basketball player is hoping that his high profile in his native country will encourage his fellow countrymen to stop consuming shark fin soup.
At a press conference earlier this week in Shanghai, Ming joined billionaire Richard Branson in an appeal to the Chinese, whose appetite for the delicacy has exploded in the last ten years -- conspicuous consumption at its most literal.
The soup, once seen as a powerful symbol of wealth and prestige, normally costs $100 a bowl. But with more sharks being slaughtered to feed Chinese demand, the soup has become "commonplace," according to CNN, thereby defeating the purpose of eating it.
But what's troubling about the rise in shark fin soup's popularity is the impact the demand is having upon an already fragile and endangered population. Tiger sharks, bull sharks, dusky sharks and many other species have been reduced to a mere 5 percent of their numbers since the 1970s, as 95 percent of these populations have been slaughtered. In the South China Sea alone, 83 percent of the shark population has been destroyed.
At highest risk is the hammerhead shark, which is considered "globally endangered," because of the high demand for its fin. Over 70 million sharks were slaughtered last year alone, their fins cut off and then thrown back into the water to die. Without its fin, the shark can't swim, and sinks to the bottom of the ocean where it suffers a prolonged, painful death from bleeding and suffocation.
Ming has long fought prevailing Chinese tradition and urged his countrymen to consider how their appetite is destroying far more than just shark populations. His work has led to shark fin soup being banned in places like Hawaii, but his pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears in China. Wrote the New York Times in 2005: "The Shark's Fin Association -- a group based in Hong Kong intent on blending flavorless shark fin with meat, greens and even herbal medicine -- said in effect that Mr. Yao should stick to basketball."
The prevailing sentiment in China -- as expressed in a recent article from the Jakarta Globe -- is that sharks are dangerous creatures, and killing them (inhumanely or not) is doing the world a service. "We human beings have to control the number of sharks as they are dangerous," one shop owner was quoted as saying in the paper. Another added: "Western people may not understand what shark's fin means to Chinese culture. People shouldn't criticize other people because they eat something Western people don't eat."
Both of these statements are far, far beside the point, however.
People shouldn't object to shark fin soup just because it kills sharks: It kills entire ecosystems.
"Sharks have been around for nearly 400 million years playing vital roles in marine ecosystems, but at the current rate of overfishing driven by the demand for shark fin soup they could be wiped out in a single human generation," WildAid director Peter Knights was quoted as saying.
When you wipe out one of the ocean's main predators, other predators will take its place. And without those predators kept in check, entire populations of other species are destroyed as well. Overfishing of sharks along the Atlantic Coast has led to an explosion of rays, for instance, and a corresponding decimation of the bay scallop population.
But while Yao Ming is busy fighting a battle in China, we have a war to wage at home, too: While the Chinese may be content to eat an entire species into extinction, the United States is its enabler, responsible for supplying a large amount of those shark fins ourselves.
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And lest you think Houston isn't complicit in shark fin-related crimes, think again. You can find the "delicacy" at nearly a dozen restaurants throughout the city. But before you rush out to try some, remember: shark fin itself tastes like nothing and looks like the clear pus oozing from an open wound. That's right: It doesn't even taste good.